Brant Gracia | Cutting RNA Molecules
Explaining my Research
The production of proteins, the cells primary metabolic molecule, is carried out by different RNA molecules including messenger RNA, transfer RNA, and ribosomal RNAs. As such, the role of RNA in the cell cannot be underestimated. Over the last 40 years, it has been found that structured RNAs are more functionally diverse than was previously thought including but not limited to functions in cellular biology and applications in bioengineering. In order to function, these RNAs must fold to an active 3-dimensional structure, but RNAs have a propensity to fold incorrectly into non active long lived structures which can significantly delay the timing of active RNA function.
My research aims to develop a general framework for all RNA folding processes that can be used to predict how long an RNA folding pathway may take to traverse. This general framework is based on the modular nature of structured RNA; structured RNA pieces can fold in isolation and be reconstituted together to form active structures. We hypothesize that the length of time for an RNA to fold can be predicted from the individual steps of structure formation that make up the entire folding process; A → C can be predicted if we know A → B and B → C. We have developed a model system to test this hypothesis utilizing the first ever discovered catalytic RNA, the group I intron ribozyme from Tetrahymena thermophila. Given the tendency of RNA to incorrectly fold into non-active structures, the ability to predict the timing of RNA folding is essential for understanding the exact timing of RNA function inside of the cell.
How did you become involved with “Present your PhD Thesis to a 12 year-old” project?
As a scientist and educator, teaching has always been my passion. My previous work in outreach has included involvement in the AVID program in Bryan/College Station, and tutoring with the brainfuse network. After moving and joining the UT graduate school, I began looking for additional opportunities to teach and convey science to the public. I have become involved in the Present your Ph.D. thesis to a 12 year-old project--because a fellow lab mate recommended it--with an opportunity to teach science to the next generation of young minds in the Austin and surrounding areas.
What is your goal introducing such a project/topic to young students?
Like many others, my goal is to convey my excitement and enthusiasm for science, but not in the conventional sense. In the public school system here in Austin, exposure to scientific research is limited. As a result, students are not aware that such a field exists when in fact their interest in science simply requires nurturing. I became involved in scientific research much later than most during my undergraduate career, but since then my enthusiasm for science has grown tremendously. My desire is that students in Austin, and around the world, are made aware of the possibilities and beauty a career in science has to offer.