Julius Lucks

Sewage Sampling Offers Promising Method for Early Detection of COVID Outbreaks

One of the challenges facing researchers responding to the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) pandemic is the ability to identify and track infection early. Predicting the spread of illness can help communities and governments know where to concentrate resources, focus outreach efforts, and how to alter policy.

One way that researchers have been able to detect early increases in cases is by sampling sewer systems. Because everyone flushes their toilet, sewer samples represent the health of the entire neighborhood on any given day. Researchers can detect a SARS-CoV-2 signal in the sewer before hospitals see an uptick in patients. The samples collected would track the rise and fall of infections in the community.

Dr. Julius Lucks (MCB-2028651) and his lab at Northwestern University in Chicago have made this kind of wide-scale sewer sampling possible by utilizing CRISPR Isothermal Amplification (CIA).  This approach allows samples to be processed in a single reaction at room temperature, making it a faster, cheaper, and a more scalable assay. The ability to have a point-of-contact test that takes less than an hour, costs less than a dollar, and is more accurate than a PCR-based method could change the way researchers approach SARS-CoV-2 tracking. Read more in the Chicago Tribune.

Sharing MCB Science: Watching the STARs (Small Transcription Activating RNAs)

The editors are excited about the first of what we hope to be many blog posts featuring the science of MCB-funded investigators. We plan to share a broad sampling of this research and its outcomes on our blog. If you are a) an MCB-funded researcher and b) have recently published research that you would like to share, please fill out this form to be considered for a featured post.

RNA is an important molecule found in all living organisms. To use a computer analogy, RNA acts like a circuit board, controlling DNA, nature’s hard drive. RNA helps to read genetic information and enact the programs of life, through proteins and other important biologic materials. Dr. Julius Lucks, along with post-doctoral associate James Chappell and graduate student Melissa Takahashi, has capitalized on the ability of RNA to form different folded structures via complementary base pairing to create Small Transcription Activating RNAs or STARs. STARs are a molecular “on-switch”, whose shape controls the state (off or on) of the switch. In their recent paper in Nature Chemical Biology, the Lucks Lab researchers describe using STARs to activate the first steps in gene expression (the “printing out” of proteins) in bacteria. The researchers also provide data to support the idea of snapping STARs together to create advanced genetic programs within bacteria.  These examples demonstrate the potential application of STARS to allow bioengineers or synthetic biologists to write new genetic programs, which could engineer cells to address health and environmental challenges. Ongoing research in the lab is focused on using STARs for molecular diagnostics.

The research group is committed to broader impacts and they have recently created a summer course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories in Synthetic Biology, where they collaborate with other synthetic biology researchers to develop an ideal training ground for students interested in learning more about the field. Students range from first-year graduate students, to industry professionals, to senior Professors. The course, which has been held for the past 3 summers, is interactive, incorporating research, top-notch guest speakers, and hands-on activities.

To engage the broader community in synthetic biology, the Lucks Lab is closely collaborating with the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY,as part of the NSF-funded “Multi-Site Public Engagement with Science – Synthetic Biology” project. The goal of the project is to create hands-on activities for children and their families. For example, the group is working on developing a card game that can teach adults and children about the basics of synthetic biology. The cards feature images and facts about engineered microbes, such as, how microbes help humans create important medicines.

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