Engineering at Nebraska, Spring 2008
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Epigentics: A Dialogue Between Biologists and Engineers

by Gillian Klucas

Engineers are working to develop nano-level tools that help promote RNA-encoding to advance genes' responses inside plant cell walls

At first glance inside Joseph Turner's laboratory, you'll spot students diligently examining plants and may think this is a biologist's domain. But the UNL engineering mechanics professor is part of a unique multidisciplinary project bringing together engineers, biologists and computer scientists to study how genes function and to develop a new generation of nanotechnology tools to help them.

Through the Nano-enhanced Epigenetics Research project, "We're trying to understand what makes a gene respond the way it does so that we might be able to someday duplicate or manipulate it,"said plant scientist Sally Mackenzie, who heads UNL's Center for Plant Science Innovation.

Turner and Mackenzie are coordinating the project involving UNL, University of Nebraska Medical Center and Creighton University researchers. It's funded with a three-year, $9 million grant from the National Science Foundation to Nebraska's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

"We're creating a new generation of scientists."

The biology team is exploring how plant genes react to stresses, such as drought, which may one day help plant scientists make agricultural plants more heat, cold or drought resistant. Other teams are examining how human genes respond to oxidative damage and comparing plant and animal cell responses to different environmental conditions.

Turner hopes his work applying engineering concepts to plant cell walls leads to nano-tools that can introduce encoding material, such as RNA, into a specific gene or cell of a living organism, a more targeted approach than currently possible.

"We needed to start a dialogue between biologists and engineers" To achieve these goals, he said. "Until engineers understand the problems and needs of biologists, we won't know exactly which problems we need to address."

Researchers hope their unique partnership leads to a multidisciplinary center and further collaborations. Fred Choobineh, director of Nebraska EPSCoR, said this cutting-edge project builds on Nebraska's research strengths.

"Students also will benefit," Mackenzie said.

"They don't know what kinds of barriers have existed in past years between biology and engineering. They're more open to doing things in new ways. We're creating a new generation of scientists."