Turning Off Genes with the Flick of a Switch
ENG’s Jim Collins develops new technology for medical research
To hear Collins talk about the history and promise of his genetic toggle switch, watch the video above.
What happens if you can switch human genes off and on? Jim Collins, a College of Engineering biomedical engineering professor and a University professor, applied dynamical systems theory to the workings of physiological systems to answer that important question for medical research. Collins is also the codirector of BU’s Center for BioDynamics, and his laboratory there, the Applied Biodynamics Laboratory, has developed the world’s first genetic toggle switch to find out.
The switch, a molecular device that can turn genes off or on, gives researchers a chance to observe how genes interact with different cells throughout the body, in both healthy and diseased systems. With the switch in the off position, Collins says, researchers can track the changes in gene expression — the process through which genetic information, such as the DNA sequence, is made into a protein — and observe which proteins are no longer being expressed, in order to get a better idea of how a particular gene interacts with a cell. Collins’ molecular circuit breaker has the potential to shed light on what goes wrong in the genes of those with Alzheimer’s and other diseases. It could also be used to temporarily deactivate an immune system to minimize the risks in surgery — such as tissue graft rejection.
Collins, who has a reputation as a dynamo in the classroom, won BU’s highest teaching honor, the Metcalf Cup and Prize for Excellence in Teaching, in 1998. His contributions to science earned him a MacArthur “genius” award in 2003.1 Comments