Genetic Switch

Genetic Switch

UEA scientists are measuring some of the fastest processes on the planet to determine the effect that light has on proteins in living organisms, and the resulting structural changes that activate genetic switches.

In this important research project, Professor Steve Meech and his colleagues at UEA with collaborators in Harwell and New York are studying blue light sensing proteins that exist within about a quarter of all bacteria. In their natural environment these proteins can help photosynthetic bacteria regulate their production of bacteriochlorophyll in response to the amount of light they are exposed to, but little is understood about exactly how they do this.

Professor Meech’s research group has been using pulses of light from lasers to direct photons at two classes of these proteins, BLUF and LOV domain. They are then using ultrafast infrared spectroscopy to measure the structural changes within the proteins, which take only a pico second (one trillionth of a second) to occur. The structural changes, in turn, are activating genetic switches in the protein, allowing it to react to its environment.

By understanding this process, scientists can begin to place light sensitive proteins into organisms where they are not normally found, and exercise this ‘genetic switch’ as a useful tool – using tiny pulses of light to ‘switch’ a gene on or off and control how it reacts to its environment.

This ability to look at a very specific point in time and space within molecules, and measure such fast changes, could help us gain a better understanding of individual gene function and its reaction to light as part of a growing field of Optogenetics research. 

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The Expert

Professor Stephen Meech

Professor of Physical Chemistry
School of Chemistry

Stephen Meech has been at UEA since 1994. He is a Professor of Physical Chemistry, teaching courses across the spectrum of physical chemistry and chemical physics, from first year to Masters.

His research is focused on understanding ultrafast dynamics of complex condensed phase systems and interfaces. He maintains a number of national and international research collaborations which facilitate the application of ultrafast methods to some of the most interesting and challenging problems.

Prior to joining UEA he was an Inoue Foundation fellow at IMS Japan and an EPSRC fellow at The University of Groningen, The Netherlands. He has held two JSPS fellowships in Japan and was a visiting researcher at RIKEN Tokyo.