In vitro directed evolution allows biomolecules with new and useful properties to be engineered—mimicking natural evolution on an experimentally accessible time scale by creating large libraries of DNA mutants using PCR and then carrying out a high-throughput assay for variants with improved function. To provide a breakthrough in the complexity of libraries that can be readily searched experimentally for synthetic biology and to allow systems to be directly engineered in the cell, my laboratory is engineering S. cerevisiae so that both the mutagenesis and selection steps of directed evolution can be carried out entirely in vivo, under conditions of sexual reproduction. We have built a modular chemical complementation assay, which provides a selection for diverse chemistry beyond that natural to the cell using themes and variations on the yeast two-hybrid assay. In addition, we devised a heritable recombination system, for simultaneous mutagenesis and selection in vivo under conditions of sexual reproduction. Finally, we have begun to utilize these mutagenesis and selection technologies to engineer yeast to carry out new functions themselves ranging from being a biosensor, to a therapeutic, to a self-organizing community.
Virginia W. Cornish graduated summa cum laude from Columbia University with a B.A. in Biochemistry in 1991, where she did undergraduate research with Professor Ronald Breslow. She earned her Ph.D. in Chemistry with Professor Peter Schultz at the University of California at Berkeley and then was a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Biology Department at M.I.T. under the guidance of Professor Robert Sauer. Virginia joined the faculty of the Chemistry Department at Columbia in 1999, where she carries out research at the interface of chemistry and biology, and was promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in 2004 and then Professor in 2007. Her laboratory brings together modern methods in synthetic chemistry and DNA technology to expand the synthetic capabilities of living cells. Her research has resulted in 59 research publications and several patents and currently is supported by multiple grants from the NIH and NSF.
For details of her research and recent publication, please visit HERE
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