Adam Barlev, Chemistry
My research straddles the line between Chemistry and Molecular Biology. At what point does a molecule become alive? At what stage does a molecule have function or the ability to sense its environment?
In the lab of Dr. Dipankar Sen, we use the technique of SELEX, also called evolution in a test tube. In this technique, synthetic random DNA (which is most certainly dead and not capable of much of anything) can be evolved to carry out a task. The task I study is DNA repair; That is, I study a particular peice of DNA which can repair another strand when it gets the type of lesions that cause skin cancer.
Even a tiny drop of water at the bottom of a test tube can hold billions of billions of unique DNA sequences. I like to think of the unfathomably large number of sequences in that drop as a thought in Natures' mind, simultaneously holding every attempt at solving a given problem. Most of them probably arent very good solutions at all, but if you're clever enough, and can think of a way to isolate those molecules that show life-like properties, they can be amplified and the cycle repeated.
Once isolated, characterizing the molecules generated by SELEX can be challenging. Many of the tried and true techniques in Molecular Biology such as X-Ray Crystalography are infeasible. Without these brute-force methods, we're forced to be creative and apply techniques from Electrochemistry, Biophysics and Enzymology to try and figure out how the molecules we've isolated function.