April 2, 2010
WOOSTER, Ohio - Jeffrey Moffitt's early exposure to undergraduate research at The College of Wooster continues to pay handsome dividends. A bio-physicist, Moffitt recently received the inaugural Award for Outstanding Doctoral Thesis Research in Biological Physics for his project, "Viral DNA Packaging at Base Pair Resolution."
The award-winning project centered on the study of a minute molecular DNA pump. "Scientists are realizing that the cell is very mechanical in nature," said Moffitt, a 2003 Wooster graduate. "Many processes in the cell are driven by little, biological motors. Just like everyday motors, they have moving parts - like pistons - and they burn chemical fuel in order to perform mechanical work. The type of motor I studied pumps the DNA of a bacterial virus into a small protective shell. When finished, the DNA inside the shell is compressed to a pressure 10 times that of an unopened Champaign bottle - so this is a strong motor."
According to Moffitt, the best way to understand how these motors function is to observe them, but the motions of these motors are too small for traditional microscopes (their pistons move in Ångstrom-scale motions - an Ångstrom is one ten-billionth of a meter or about the size of one hydrogen atom). In order to see these motors, he had to design a type of microscope, known as an optical tweezers, which allowed him to grab, hold, and manipulate a single piece of DNA. With this instrument, Moffitt could play a "molecular tug-of-war" with a single DNA pump, and follow each increment of DNA pumped by the motor. "While we couldn't see the motion of each piston of the motor, we could infer their motion from the movements of the DNA." The results of his study were published in two papers in the international journal Nature last year. The new abilities offered by these techniques promise to elucidate how many other biological motors function.
Moffitt, who earned his M.A. and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley and received both the National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship and the Helen Hay Whitney Fellowship, says Wooster helped him to build a foundation for understanding and executing research methods. "One of the things Wooster does very well is to provide many research opportunities for students," he said. "The sooner you are exposed to research the better, especially if you are planning to go to graduate school."
A former visiting scholar at the Ludwig-Maximillians-Universitaet in Munich, Germany, where he developed new techniques in super-resolution microscopy, Moffitt is currently studying the dynamics of genetic networks in E. coli at Harvard University.
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