Undergraduate Researchers Honored for Advances in Biomolecular Microtubules

TubeTech member Darnel Theagene '18 presents the team's research.

A team of student researchers from Columbia Engineering earned a silver award at BIOMOD 2016, a biomolecular design competition for undergraduates sponsored by Harvard’s Wyss Institute.

The TubeTech team designed a protocol to favor the further polymerization of cytoskeletal filaments known as microtubules. The technique doubles the average filament length obtained by the standard protocol. The ability to produce longer microtubules, which support the “skeletons” of human cells and operate as “molecular highways” for transporting cargo within cells, has major implications for designing next-generation bionanodevices.

“Cargo is typically transported in sacs called vesicles by motor proteins, which can carry the vesicles across the cells along microtubules, the equivalent of someone crowd-surfing at a concert,” said team member Darnel Theagene ’18. “Having a procedure to produce longer microtubules would be helpful for creating nanoscale transport systems.”

Longer microtubules also promise to make nanosensors, which transfer biological information at the nanoscale, more effective and efficient. The longer filaments could be used in devices for transporting proteins, sensing for particular molecules, and perhaps someday for diagnosing diseases and delivering targeted drugs.

The research in Professor Henry Hess’s Laboratory for Nanobiotechnology and Synthetic Biology built upon Hess’s work and proceeded in two phases. The team first investigated the potential of shearing and annealing microtubules for longer and stronger versions. Next, the team explored how to grow microtubules from seeds, pre-nucleated microtubules that can be induced to grow longer.

“We’re incredibly grateful that Columbia Engineering offers such amazing opportunities and support for undergraduates to pursue research and our own projects” said Azraf Anwar ’18, another team member.

The team also included Brandon Cuevas CC’20 and Sasha Zemsky of Caltech, with mentoring from Biomedical Engineering PhD candidates Neda Bassir Kazeruni and Stanislav Tsitkov.  

“It’s been an unforgettable experience to conduct and present research with my lab partners,” Cuevas said. “Without teamwork, none of this could have happened.”

By Jesse Adams

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