Shaharyar Lakhani published on July 3, 2019:
While science produces many advancements across various fields, it is undeniably costly and intricate. Therefore, only people with the right equipment and facilities are able to carry out high level experiments. Dr. Sanchita Bhadra and her team in the Ellington Lab at the University of Texas at Austin are trying to resolve this problem by making products that can aid in carrying out scientific research in environments where these facilities aren’t present. This would allow researchers to conduct experiments all over the world without needing high-tech and costly equipment.
A lot of molecular biology research is dependent on enzymes, such as Taq DNA polymerase and Mu-MLV reverse transcriptase among others, which are typically purified using technically involved procedures and can only remain function at certain temperatures and breakdown otherwise. Usually, these enzymes require constant cold and controlled environments for extended storage. To cut down on production time and cost, Bhadra and her team have found an alternative solution; “We’ve developed a way to replace purified enzymes with enzymes expressed inside dried out bacteria called ‘cellular reagents’, which are cheaper and easier to make without complex instruments or processes. Cellular reagents are also easier to transport, and store due to their ability to stay at room temperature for several months whilst retaining functionality, comparable to that of purified enzymes,” says Vylan Nguyen, a researcher part of Dr. Bhadra’s team. Additionally, due to the significantly simplified production protocols, the reagents could be produced locally, thus saving time and money on distribution. Dr. Bhadra’s team used the enzyme Taq DNA Polymerase to test the success of these cellular reagents. The team expressed Taq in E.coli, which they then dehydrated. When PCR assays were performed using the original commercial pure Taq enzyme and the Taq cellular reagents, the results were comparable. Vylan states that “users, particularly students learning new protocols, would not have to be concerned with keeping enzymes at freezing temperatures throughout their experiments.” The team has subsequently developed cellular reagents for many other common molecular biology enzymes including Bst DNA polymerase, KlenTaq polymerase, Phusion polymerase, and Taq DNA ligase, and demonstrated their efficient use in common molecular biology procedures, such as reverse transcription PCR, diagnostic techniques, such as real-time PCR, and even synthetic biology applications, such as plasmid construction using Gibson assembly.
Dr. Bhadra, Nguyen, and the rest of the team are currently working on ways to make the experiments as user friendly as possible for both lower budget and low resource environments, as well as for teaching purposes. To do so, they are creating an educational kit with a lab assignment where users can set up a PCR reactions using cellular reagents. Included in the kit would be a template and corresponding primers to work as a “control” of sorts that users can practice with, along with extra cellular reagents if the users have their own templates they want to test to perhaps make their own diagnostics. Additionally, the team is trying to make the procedure require as few steps as possible, to enhance ease of use and minimize errors.
The kit is intended for use by students and instructors in low-resource areas due to its cost effectiveness and ease of use. This would especially prove beneficial in giving research opportunities to aspiring researchers in need of lab resources. For larger labs, these cell reagents can also be made in bulk, and each PCR tube could perform up to ten separate reactions. With the help of Dr. Bhadra’s team and their efforts, more people can be involved in scientific research around the world.