Dr. Xiaolian Gao
Department of Biology and Biochemistry
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by Noelle Heinze
Understanding the regulation of gene function and, at a fundamental level, improving healthcare, medicine, and the environment are the goals of UH researchers working in the emerging field of synthetic biology—specifying every bit of DNA that goes into an organism to determine its form and function in a controlled, predictable way.
Employing digital technology, similar to that used in making computer chips, Professor of Biology and Biochemistry Xiaolian Gao and her research partners have made a sudden advance in synthesizing long molecules of DNA.  Their findings on how to mass produce multiple genes on a single DNA chip were recently published in the science journal Nature.
“Synthetic genes are like a box of Lego® building blocks,” explains Dr. Gao. “Their organization is very complex.  By making programmed synthesis of genes economical, we can provide more efficient tools to aid the efforts of researchers to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate biological systems.” 
The technology developed by Gao and her colleagues from the University of Michigan and Harvard University will be about one hundred times more cost- and time-efficient than current technology, which costs thousands of dollars to program synthesis of a typical gene and would take millions of dollars and years to synthesize several thousand genes.
Their breakthrough has the potential for developing and producing safer, less toxic proteins than those currently used in disease treatment and could also allow for production of large molecules that do not occur naturally, but that are needed for new generations of vaccines for HIV and other viral diseases.
In addition, there is the potential for the development of new medications, which could be especially useful in detection and treatment of infectious organisms that could be used by terrorists.
“Redesigning genes and programming cells to make pharmaceuticals are among the goals of this research,” says John Bear, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.  It’s very exciting to have faculty working on this type of cutting-edge research. With the completion of the Science and Engineering Research and Classroom Complex (SERCC), we expect to see more advances in bionanotechnology through collaborations among our researchers and between UH and other institutions.”
SERCC will be one of only two academic institution facilities of its kind.  The five-story, state-of-the-art bionanotechnology research facility will house research labs with highly specialized equipment for UH faculty, encouraging advances in biomedical engineering, nanomaterials, biosensors, and bioenvironmental and information technology.
For more information about Xiaolian Gao’s research, please visit http://nsm.uh.edu/faculty.php?155622-961-5=gao
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