Recommended by: Jim Collins, Boston University
Gabor Balazsi wants to control genes. At the MD Anderson Cancer Center, Balazsi is working on developing improved methods of gene expression control. "We would like to decouple genes from their natural control environment and place them under our own control, controlling them with small networks that we design and that we understand very well," Balazsi says. "By doing that, we hope to be able to see how specific details of gene expression in large cell populations may affect some important features such as drug resistance or virulence — things that are important in the clinic, but also for fundamental biology."
Now, using synthetic networks in yeast, it's possible to uncouple genes from their natural control, and then control development in the lab, Balazsi says. Yeast serves as a test bed for working out these control principles. Once the researchers have perfected the control in yeast, they will try to move the circuits into other cell types, like mammalian cells or bacteria.
In the next five years, Balazsi would like to start moving between organisms, developing gene expression control in yeast, and making sure that it's possible to move very quickly to mammalian cells. "We're trying to figure out the principles of how to do this, and once we know it, we will hopefully accelerate the process," he says. "Basically, what I'm hoping to achieve is using synthetic gene expression control to understand fundamental biological processes such as development, evolution, and such."
And the Nobel goes to…
If he were ever to win, Balazsi would want it to be for being the person who figured out how to apply synthetic, human-built, gene networks to control cell development. "I think controlling development and differentiation in the face of evolution would also mean that we can control cancer," he says. "So solving the first problem would bring us really close to solving the second."