For three consecutive years, UH professors have received Houston Leadership in Technology Awards from the Houston chapter of the Association for Women in Computing (AWC). This year, Xiaolian Gao, a UH biology and biochemistry professor and adjunct professor in chemistry and biomedical engineering, is among the 24 honorees for her DNA chip research.
Gao was selected based on her leadership roles in Houston's technology and computing arenas, as well as her significant career accomplishments. Her dedication to DNA technology development produced successful results in her collaboration with researchers at Harvard University, the University of Michigan and Atactic Technologies, a Houston biotechnology company, on how to mass produce multiple genes on a single DNA chip. The results were published in the science journal Nature in late 2004, yielding interviews with The New York Times and Newsweek as an expert and innovator in synthetic biology, and no doubt contributed to her being selected for this most recent honor from the AWC.
This developing technology by Gao and her associates has the potential to significantly reduce the economic barrier to make complete functioning organisms that can produce energy, neutralize toxins and make drugs and artificial genes. These organisms may eventually be used in alternative energy sources, natural product synthesis and discovery of novel protein therapeutic molecules, as well as in gene therapy procedures to treat genetic disorders, such as Parkinson's and diabetes, that could yield profound benefits for human health and quality of life.
"Synthetic genes are like a box of Lego building blocks," Gao said. "Their organization is very complex, even in simple organisms. 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. There are many potential biochemical and biomedical applications."
Using current methods, programmed synthesis of a typical gene cluster costs thousands of dollars. The system developed by Gao and her partners employs digital chemistry technology similar to that used in making computer chips and thereby reduces cost and time factors drastically. Her group estimates that the new technology will be about one hundred times more cost- and time-efficient than current technologies.
This research was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is the central research and development organization for the Department of Defense. Gao's continued effort in taking this technology to the next level is now funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute of the National Institutes of Health.
"The technology developed by Dr. Gao and her collaborators has the potential to make research that many of us could only dream about both plausible and cost effective," said Stuart Dryer, chair of the department of biology and biochemistry at UH. "In my own research on neurological diseases, we've often wished we could rapidly synthesize many variations of large naturally occurring genes. The costs of current technology have prevented us from doing this, but Dr. Gao's research will break down that barrier."
Gao will receive her AWC-Houston Leadership in Technology Award during the annual gala Saturday, June 10 at the Inter-Continental Houston Hotel. Prior UH award winners were Suncica Canic, a mathematics professor, and Susan Hardin, an adjunct professor of biology and biochemistry, who brought home this honor for UH in 2005 and 2004, respectively. Gao has been with UH since 1992.
For a full list of the 2006 AWC honorees, visit http://awchouston.
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