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Researcher is using nature's command and control network to develop ways to engineer organisms

BLACKSBURG, Va. July 10, 2002 -- Peter Kennelly, a professor of biochemistry at Virginia Tech, is probing nature's own command and control network to understand how it functions and to develop new strategies for genetically engineering organisms. By mapping the mechanisms already in place to find the switch that controls a certain action, Kennelly is working to find ways to turn on processes that normally would not be active.

"Living organisms do an amazing amount of chemistry," says Kennelly. "The goals of life sciences are not only to take advantage of that machinery, but to control it so it can do more sophisticated tasks," he says. "Currently when we want a desirable trait in an organism, we introduce a gene that we put under artificial control to make a large quantity of the protein product of that gene."

The protein forces the organism to perform the desired task, but this is an inefficient and stressful method because it requires cells to produce hundreds of times more protein than is needed. "We tend to stress the organism because it has to use most of its resources to do the task," he says.

In contrast, turning on a specific switch already in place within the organism is more efficient and economical because the response is more proportionate. The maintenance of a more balanced distribution of resources among cellular processes also makes the organism more viable and robust. One application of the new method is in the development of biosensors, enzymes that are intermediaries in the natural sensing of outside events.

"If we did this from scratch, it would take us a long time, but we're able to do it more quickly if we take advantage of nature's existing engineering and modify it," Kennelly says.

He likens the way he works to the process used to develop airplanes, in which inventors looked at birds for the basic components and then modified those parts to work in something man made.

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Contact: Peter Kennelly
pjkennel@vt.edu
540-231-4317
Virginia Tech
10-Jul-2002


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