Marion Scheepers, Ph.D.
Department of Mathematics
Boise State mathematics professor Marion Scheepers is working in collaboration with researchers from University of Witten-Herdecke in Germany and the Boise State Department of Biological Sciences to study biological encryption mechanisms in single cell organisms.
The project is being funded by separate grants from the National Science Foundation and the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft).
Department of Biological Sciences professors Jim Smith and Julia Oxford have consulted Scheepers in the work and have provided lab space and materials.
The work focuses on ciliates – microorganisms found virtually everywhere there is water. Among “eukaryotic” organisms, whose DNA is organized into complex structures enclosed within membranes, ciliates are unique: They carry two genetically identical copies of their genome, with one being an encrypted version of the other.
While the unencrypted genome is used in the day-to-day function of the organism, the encrypted version is central to reproduction, being passed on to progeny and decoded by their cellular machinery – a biological feat tantamount to unscrambling an encoded message more than 100 million letters long.
It’s more than just a fancy trick though: For Scheepers and his research colleagues, it represents part of a biological computing mechanism that, if elucidated, could have enormous consequences.
“There are many possibilities,” Scheepers said. “We’re really in the early stages of a scientific revolution in the life sciences.”
A very significant application of the work, Scheepers said, could be in pharmacology. Medications loaded with specially engineered strands of DNA could be programmed to target individual cells in a patient’s body ,applying their therapeutic agents only under extremely specific circumstances.
But for Scheepers, just as important as the large-scale implications of the work are the implications for students at Boise State. Scheepers hopes that the research will help pave the way for more interdisciplinary opportunities for students, providing research experience as well as a unique perspective on science.
“I hope that people, especially students, will become interested in what is really going on in the life sciences and the great potential for progress when combining life sciences with mathematics,” Scheepers said.
Scheepers plans to teach a course with the Mathematics Department based in part on findings from the study spring 2010. He is also working with Department of Biological Sciences professor Jim Smith in a separate ciliate research project.
–By Nick Bock