Jacqueline Barton: DNA Like Wire for Signaling within a Cell in EarthSky

Jacqueline Barton

April 23, 2012 - Austin, TX

By Jorge Salazar

A professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, Jacqueline Barton received a National Medal of Science in 2011 for her discovery that cells use the double strands of the DNA helix like a wire for long-range signaling among proteins within a cell. Her research holds promise for understanding how cells detect and repair DNA defects—related both to ordinary conditions like aging—and to diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer. This podcast is part of the Thanks To Chemistry series, produced in cooperation with the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Generous sponsorship support was provided by the BASF Corporation. Additional production support was provided by The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, DuPont, and ExxonMobil. Jacqueline Barton spoke to EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar.

On October 21, 2011, you received a National Medal of Science for discovering that DNA acts like a wire in a cell. Tell us about that.

First of all, it was an extraordinary honor. I represent all the people who work with me—the graduate students and post-docs who really carry out the work.

We think about DNA usually as the library of the cell. It encodes all the information that makes us what we are.

But it also turns out that when you look at the chemical or molecular structure of DNA—that spiral staircase we call the double helix—you find the steps of the spiral staircase stacked one on top of one another. It turns out that the DNA double helix looks a lot like solid state materials that are quite conductive.

Very soon after Watson and Crick first described the structure of DNA, chemists started asking—does this structure have the characteristic of being conductive? That was over 50 years ago.

About 20 to 30 years ago, chemists began being able to synthesize a little piece of DNA—to know exactly what’s connected to what.

We attached little molecular probes to either side of the DNA double helix to ask whether or not you can shoot an electron from one side of the DNA to the other side of the DNA. And that’s how it all started. . . .

Link to EarthSky