Moving DNA Molecules With Magnetic Tweezers

on. In his Hopkins lab, Wirtz has reconstructed his device to move molecules back and forth beneath a microscope in one dimension. He plans to add more magnets and a joystick to recreate the three-dimensional movement.

A DNA molecule, by itself, is not magnetic. Wirtz overcomes this hurdle with iron oxide beads, each no larger than one-hundredth of a micron in diameter. (A micron is one-thousandth of a millimeter.) He coats these magnetic beads with a protein called biotin. Within a solution, biotin automatically attaches itself to an end of a DNA molecule, giving it a tiny magnetic partner. When he switches on his electromagnets, Wirtz can then move the DNA molecules. By coating the beads and the DNA with fluorescent dye, he can observe their activity through a microscope.

This breakthrough has allowed Wirtz to make critical measurements of how a single DNA molecule moves and changes shape. At rest, DNA is a long, chain-like molecule that coils itself into the shape of a ball. When one end is pulled by a magnet, the molecule stretches into a narrow trumpet-like shape. Wirtz used the magnetic tweezers in his home city of Brussels, Belgium, to become the first scientist to measure the friction coefficient-- force divided by velocity--of a single DNA molecule. In 1995, his findings were published in Physical Review Letters. He joined the faculty of Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering two years ago.

For his research, Wirtz selected the lambda-phage DNA molecule, found in a virus, because, at 17 microns from end to end, it is large enough to view with a simple benchtop microscope. But he believes the magnetic manipulation technique will work with other biological polymers, including those designed to carry medicine to a specific site. The magnetic tweezers could also be used in genetic engineering, where scientists need to move genes and enzymes within microscopic cells, Wirtz says. At Hopkins, he is able to advance his research with the aid of a cos

Contact: Phil Sneiderman
Johns Hopkins University

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