Campus & Community

Using physics to understand biology

2 min read

Goel puts DNA to the test

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.

“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?’”