HARVARD GAZETTE ARCHIVES
Using physics to understand biology
Goel puts DNA to the test
By Alvin Powell
Harvard News Office
Anita Goel is using the tools of physics to examine one of the most basic processes of biology, the way genetic information is extracted from DNA molecules and how this process is influenced by the environment.
Goel, an associate of the Physics Department, is hoping her unique approach will lead to both a new understanding of this critical and complex process and to new ways to manipulate and control it.
Goel completed Harvard's M.D.-Ph.D. program last spring, earning her doctorate in physics, rather than in biology or chemistry - fields more conventionally related to medicine.
But Goel, who was named one of the world's 35 most promising researchers under the age of 35 this fall by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review Magazine, said that she's always been intrigued by the ability of physics to explain the most basic processes of the universe, including those underlying life.
She grew up in the rural town of Prentiss, Miss., with pet chickens and peacocks in her back yard. The bucolic atmosphere and the nature around her made a deep impression on Goel.
"There's this sense of wonder, with a lot of nature around you," Goel said. "We understand so much about atoms and molecules, but do we really understand the basic physics of life?"
Today Goel wears several hats as she seeks to illuminate those basic processes. She is continuing her academic research, which attempts to understand how an enzyme called DNA polymerase replicates a single molecule of DNA, reading and writing genetic information.
She views the polymerase as a tiny, nanoscale motor because it moves along a strand of DNA by converting chemical energy into the mechanical energy needed for movement, much like an automobile converts the chemical energy in gasoline into the vehicle's motion.
"DNA polymerase is a motor intrinsically. It converts chemical energy into mechanical motion. We're trying to look at it, probe it, and understand how it works - and how the environment around it influences its behavior," Goel said. "[We're asking,] 'Can we develop knobs that control the motor?'"
Goel's dissertation adviser, Dudley Herschbach, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Research Professor of Science, said Goel's dissertation made valuable contributions to the understanding of why DNA polymerase slows when the DNA molecule is stretched between two plastic beads and tension is increased.
"Anita is very bright and has an earnest passion for science together with a strong entrepreneurial instinct," Herschbach said.
In addition to her academic work, Goel is also applying her work on nanoscale devices to new methods to detect viruses and bacteria in extremely small quantities, such as may be found in an infected blood sample.
That work has taken off recently. In 2004, Goel caught the eye of the U.S. military, which is interested in applications of cutting-edge nanotechnology to prevent bioterror. Goel was initially contacted by the government in 2004, while she was doing her clinical rotations, the last phase of the M.D.-Ph.D. program. The government initially asked her to act as a consultant, and then the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) funded her research, leading Goel to establish a new company, Nanobiosym, in 2004.
"They wanted to leverage new emerging technologies and fresh cross-disciplinary approaches for defense-critical applications," Goel said.
Goel admits that wearing so many hats - academic researcher, defense contractor, and corporate executive - can sometimes be a challenge."It's like walking a razor's edge because you have to keep a lot of worlds happy," Goel said.
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