COVID-19 has produced a media moment for ribonucleic acid (RNA) — the genetic molecule that tells cells how to build proteins. The newly developed vaccines use messenger RNA, or mRNA, which in this case tells our cells to make a corona-like spike that our immune system then learns to get rid of. But RNA isn’t new to Ilyas Yildirim, Ph.D., who spent the last decade working to unlock the secrets of that building block of life.
Yildirim, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science, works with powerful computers to model the behavior of RNA in human cells, publishing his findings in high-ranking journals. His goal for his research is to produce treatments for neurodegenerative genetic diseases such as Huntington’s disease and adult-onset muscular dystrophy, by targeting the role of mRNA in human cells.
RNA, like the related but more famous deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), is a molecule built from one long strand of four repeating nitrogenous bases. RNA has only one strand, unlike the double helix of DNA, and the strand can fold into a number of complicated shapes.
RNA performs multiple tasks within every cell, yet if defective, can result in disease. Yildirim collaborates with other scientists at the nearby Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter to build a better model for computer calculations of how RNA behaves in complex systems. If the scientists can identify specific defective shapes of RNA, that might then lead to designer molecules to correct the strand. Yildirim is also working to see if an RNA strand’s three-dimensional shape can be predicted by looking at the pattern of bases.
Before coming to FAU in 2016, Yildirim earned his doctoral degree in physics from the University of Rochester, New York, and spent two years as a research associate at the University of Cambridge in England.
Many things drew him from England to FAU, but ultimately, being close to two prestigious institutes like Scripps Research and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience was an opportunity he couldn’t resist. “I can go and talk to the Disney lab any time I want,” he said, referring to the ease of casual interaction “It’s a three-minute walk.”
In addition to Scripps and Max Plank, Yildirim is collaborating with two other FAU scientists. “We combine our expertise to understand the structure and dynamics of RNA.”
By combining his background in physics, biology and chemistry, Yildirim said he hopes his research also helps lead to treatment for COVID-19, by producing designer molecules to bind with the virus and disable it. ◆