Research in Molecular Biology: The First Step in Medical Breakthroughs

April 8th, 2014 / Advancement

All medical treatments, from drugs to surgical procedures, begin with basic research that reveals how biological systems function at every level, from atoms to molecules to cells to organisms to ecosystems. Princeton’s Department of Molecular Biology is home to some of the world’s leading scientists whose research holds tremendous promise for understanding the complexities of all living things. Their work may lead to discoveries that can mitigate illnesses or extend life.

A Sampling of Research Projects

Bonnie Bassler

• Department Chair Bonnie Bassler, Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology and former director of Princeton’s Council on Science and Technology, was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, popularly known as a “genius grant,” in 2002 for her work in quorum sensing, the process by which bacteria communicate and synchronize their behaviors. For instance, some bacteria harmful to humans release toxins only after they have formed a community consisting of a certain number of cells, presumably as a way of avoiding early detection by the immune system. Bassler is exploring ways to inhibit their chemical communication, which may lead to the development of an entirely new class of antibiotics.

Yibin Kang

• Although most cancer research focuses on primary tumors, 90 percent of fatalities are the result of metastasis rather than a primary tumor. Yibin Kang, the Warner-Lambert/Parke-Davis Professor of Molecular Biology, has discovered that bone tissue in patients with breast cancer sends a signal to breast tissue, instructing it to send the tumor to the bone, where it metastasizes in more than 70 percent of late-stage breast cancer patients. He has developed an antibody that blocks that signal—an agent that could eventually revolutionize cancer therapy and dramatically increase survival rates.

• The roundworm known as C. elegans, which shares 80 percent of its genes with humans, can be trained and possesses both short-term and long-term memory. These abilities, which depend on the same brain molecules found in humans, diminish as the worm ages. Coleen Murphy, associate professor of molecular biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics, is studying these worms to unearth mechanisms for extending the cognitive abilities and lifespan of humans. She has discovered that unusually long-lived worms and humans both have an abnormality in their insulin receptors, a finding that can lead to breakthroughs in extending the human lifespan.

Coleen Murphy (right) with research technician Jasmine Ashraf

Support for New Discoveries

While the National Institutes of Health used to fund 40 percent of all research proposals, it now funds only 7 percent. Many researchers at America's leading institutions have responded by designing more conservative projects in order to compete for a very limited pool of money. 

Private funding sources are more likely to support the kind of innovative research that can lead to major breakthroughs in health and science. In a recent column in the Princeton Alumni Weekly, President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 wrote, “Princeton is fortunate to have the support of generous donors and corporate and foundation partners to enable our researchers to do what they do best: explore their curiosities, defy conventional wisdom, create new knowledge, and mentor the next generations of researchers and teachers.”

Training Tomorrow’s Leaders in Science

Bioluminescence in Vibrio harveyi bacteria, a marine organism that communicates via quorum sensing.

Historically, many students who begin studying science turn to other disciplines before graduating. To nurture future leading-edge research, Princeton’s molecular biology department is committed to student-centered teaching that features labs, hands-on work, and real problem solving. Faculty members like Nobel laureate Eric Wieschaus, Squibb Professor in Molecular Biology, share their appreciation for the beauty of science with students beginning in entry-level courses.

This approach keeps all students—those interested in gaining a basic understanding of biology as well as those who plan a career in science—excited about the field. It also helps them retain material longer and develops the kind of thinking skills that benefit them in all career paths. By engaging promising young scientists, the department aims to produce the molecular biologists who will make tomorrow’s transformative discoveries. 

For more information on how to support the work of the Department of Molecular Biology, contact Tom Roddenbery, associate director for leadership gifts, at 609.258.6122.