UTEP Receives NSF Grant to Design Sensors That Detect Important Brain Molecules
Last Updated on May 04, 2021 at 12:00 AM
Originally published May 04, 2021
By UC Staff
Lela Vukovic, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at The University of Texas at El Paso, is combining chemistry and artificial intelligence to develop new computational tools that will be incorporated into the design of sensors used to detect brain-relevant molecules.
The goal is to gain a better understanding of human behavior. The study is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Vukovic leads the study in collaboration with Markita Landry, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Berkeley. The research focuses on developing sensors for two molecules — serotonin and oxytocin — which are involved in human mood, emotions, social behavior, and their dysregulation in disorders such as depression and autism.
The new sensors are based on DNA molecules wrapped around carbon nanotubes, which will detect serotonin and oxytocin in the sample by emitting light. The interdisciplinary project will lead to new methods for discovery of useful DNA molecules that can bind to serotonin and oxytocin and change the amount of light that the nanotube emits. These methods will address the lack of sensing tools available to detect biological molecules present in cells, tissue and live organisms, and will create understanding of how certain biological molecules allow the brain to communicate with the body. They could then be applied toward developing new DNA-based nanoscale tools for detection and recognition of other biological target molecules of interest.
“This research will provide new artificial intelligence methodologies for analyzing large experimental datasets of DNA sequences that many experimental groups are obtaining in high-throughput experimental studies enabled by modern sequencing methodologies, as well as smaller experimental datasets generated with lower throughput methods,” Vukovic said. “The goals of our methods are to learn from these experimental datasets and predict new sequences of DNA molecules that can bind to and recognize other molecules of high biomedical interest. We are planning to apply these methods in new projects that are under development.”
This endeavor provides UTEP students with unique opportunities to contribute to development of new biomedical tools, and to learn about and apply artificial intelligence methods. It also further strengthens the University’s connection with fellow top tier research university, UC Berkeley.
“We are excited that our graduate student who developed this project from the concept stage, Mr. Payam Kelich, will be able to make collaborative summer visits to UC Berkeley through the grant. We are also recruiting more graduate students to the project,” Vukovic said. “A part of this proposal is the ongoing work of incorporating computational chemistry into physical chemistry laboratory courses with Professor Dino Villagran and our laboratory coordinator, Ms. Brittany Ruch. It has been a wonderful experience to train our undergraduate students in modern computational chemistry techniques. The research in the funded project will also provide the basis for demonstrations on science behind serotonin and oxytocin to middle school student groups, which we hope to commence when safe.”