Directed evolution of biomolecular function
July 2021 – This summer, we’re spending time in office hours with some of Drew University’s amazing faculty to learn about what interests and inspires them and their research.
Today, we’re talking with Adam Cassano, Associate Professor of Chemistry, who has spent the summer in the Drew Summer Science Institute (DSSI) lab, and directing the Governor’s School of New Jersey Program in the Sciences, hosted by Drew, with OSHE administering the project partnership, and serving as a partner.
What do you think is the most interesting thing within your field of expertise?
Directed evolution of biomolecular function.
Directed evolution is an elegant combination of chemistry and biology to create new molecules for the benefit of humanity. Many potential biomolecular functions—like catalyzing a chemical reaction important for making drug molecules, or targeted binding to a specific protein in a cell—could be valuable in medicine and industry, but don’t exist in naturally-occurring biomolecules. To gain access to these functions, we need to modify the existing biomolecules. Unfortunately, they’re so complex that predicting changes required to create and optimize a desired function is extremely difficult. Directed evolution harnesses the power of biology to maximize the desired function more efficiently.
An existing biomolecule is mutated to create thousands of new versions. These new molecules then undergo a selection process, where only the molecules exhibiting the desired function “survive” the entire selection. Molecules that show initial activity undergo further mutation and the selection process becomes more rigorous to optimize the activity.
How do you bring this subject into the classroom?
In my course chemical biology, I introduce students to a number of selection techniques and strategies scientists use to evolve new functions. They also read about how some of these techniques are utilized in recent scientific literature. Finally, they come up with their own selection scheme to develop a molecule with new function.