U researcher mutates genes for cancer cure

Joanna Dornfeld

Organisms took millions of years to evolve into their current form, but one University researcher looks to speed up the evolutionary process.

Assistant biochemistry professor Claudia Schmidt-Dannert’s research – directed evolution – might change the face of biotechnology.

Schmidt-Dannert mutates existing genetic sequences, creating new genetic compounds to be used for research. Most of her research focuses on carotenoids – the natural pigments found in carrots and tomatoes – which might contain the cure for cancer.

“For almost 100 years, people have made mutations in the laboratory,” said Larry Wackett, a University biochemistry professor. “What Dr. Schmidt-Dannert does that is different, it is an approach whereby she can get a large number of mutations in a directed way and she can screen them very rapidly.”

In the past, scientists mutated one gene at a time. Schmidt-Dannert is leading the directed evolution field by randomly mutating large numbers of genes at once, Wackett said.

“Nature does it randomly, but we have a goal in mind,” Schmidt-Dannert said. “We do it in a few weeks, a few days, rather than millions of years.”

She mutates individual gene sequences to create a new compound.

“We do it in a very directed way,” Schmidt-Dannert said. “We know what we want to have.”

The new genetic compounds, called pathways, have specific qualities such as color, water solubility or shape.

First Schmidt-Dannert selects the traits she wants the pathway – a string of enzymes – to possess.

Then she manipulates individual genes in the pathway to create a compound with all the pre-selected traits.

Schmidt-Dannert is also the High-throughput Screening and Analysis Facility director in the Biodale facility. Biodale houses research support services for University faculty, students and outside industries.

The machine allows large groups of genes to be tested at a one time.

Schmidt-Dannert can mutate up to 10,000 genes in a single culture, and the machine will screen the mutations for a single trait in a matter of days or weeks.

Schmidt-Dannert began her research on carotenoids in 1998.

Researchers discovered some natural carotenoids might contain cancer-fighting agents.

Many of the known compounds researchers believe might contain the cure for cancer or other diseases are not found in large quantities.

Schmidt-Dannert is creating compounds that have similar traits but can be mass-produced for research and pharmaceuticals.

She creates and patents pathways companies might research to test their usefulness.

The University hired Schmidt-Dannert in March 2000. Prior to 2000, she was a visiting scientist at the California Institute of Technology.

University faculty recruited Schmidt-Dannert because they wanted to further her groundbreaking research at the University and felt she had tremendous leadership qualities and intellectual creativity, said David Bernlohr, head of the department of biochemistry, molecular biology and biophysics.

Schmidt-Dannert was awarded the University McKnight Land-Grant Professorship 2001-03. She also won the David and Lucille Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering 2001-06 and will receive $625,000 in grant funding for five years.

“She really has the potential to be a star, and she really has lived up to those expectations,” Wackett said.

Joanna Dornfeld welcomes comments at [email protected]