Last week, Associate Professor of Nanobioscience at SUNY Polytechnic Institute’s College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering Dr. Scott A. Tenenbaum, delivered a joint presentation to the Biological Sciences Department and Chemistry Department regarding his work on ribonucleic acid, or RNA, tertiary structure.
Tenenbaum also described himself as a molecular biologist who utilizes nanotechnology to exploit structures for commercial purposes.
His talk began with discussing some of his work regarding cancer cell behavior, and the changes that occur when surface topography changes. He described work in his lab at SUNY Polytech that took cancer cells, adhered them to different nano-topographies and observed the differences in behavior from surface to surface.
Dr. Tenenbaum’s talk focused initially on his early work as a post-doctorate at Duke University, designing methodology for detecting small RNA sequences, a procedure he dubbed RIP-Assay, or RNA immunoprecipitation. He described this process, and how he worked on the science in hs years at Duke.
His more recent work describes the use of small, synthesized RNA molecules as molecular switches. In an organism, a certain gene can be turned on or off at any given time.
However, the structure of naturally occurring RNA molecules in each cell dictate the state of the gene. He described the synthesized sxRNA as triggers, and the natural RNA as bait. The correct combination of bait and trigger is the only way to afford an appropriate, beneficial, and useful response.
Using Dr. Tenenbaum’s synthesized RNA triggers, a specific bait gene can be purposefully turned on or off. This is accomplished when the trigger binds to the bait molecule, altering its shape. Changes in conformation of the bait affect its function, either negatively or positively. This structure-function relationship is an incredibly important concept in Biology and Chemistry.
A large portion of Dr. Tenenbaum’s discussion employed metaphors from his six months as a chef before applying to graduate school at Tulane University.
He explained RNA molecules as individual ingredients. Depending upon which RNA are present, or “turned on”, different recipes are possible. He described humans as a unique recipe code, differing from mice, fruit flies, or onions. Though we are all made up of the same genetic material, DNA, the differences in our genetic recipe codes make each organism unique.
Multiple times throughout his presentation, Tenenbaum emphasized the necessity for technology. For example, he explained that 95 percent of human DNA used to be considered junk, mainly in part because the technology didn’t exist to discover and understand its role.
As a helpful hint, he also recommended that all students learn how to code, especially because of how useful it will become in the future.
His statement, that scientists often treat things that they do not understand as noise or garbage was a reminder to Union students and faculty that research may appear to be unproductive, monotonous, or unimportant but every single discovery or failure drives the science further.
As a co-founder of Hocus Locus, LLC, a biotechnology company that designs and fabricates different structurally interacting RNA (sxRNA) molecules, Dr. Tenenbaum is considered a pioneer in Ribonomics. The ultimate goal of his company is to develop therapeutic sxRNA molecules to turn on and off different genes that could lead to disease. He also jokes that the best way to grab customers attention is with a name that people remember, hence Hocus Locus, a play on genetics.
According to the company’s website, these molecules have a wide variety of use as a result of the unique folding of each individual molecule. RNA, and its overwhelming complexity, has extraordinary potential and promise as both a biological tool but also a medicinal treatment for diseases that have plagued the world.