Scripps Students and Alumnae Lead Research on DNA Conversion Technology in Biochemistry

This past summer, six Scripps students and alumnae from W.M. Keck Science Department Associate Professor of Biochemistry Aaron Leconte’s lab were published in the peer-reviewed journal Biochemistry. Their paper, “Accurate and Efficient One-Pot Reverse Transcription and Amplification of 2’-Fluoro-Modified Nucleic Acids by Commercial DNA Polymerases,” examines a faster, more cost-effective, and more accessible method of converting modified nucleic acids back into natural DNA. While the lab’s work typically focuses on developing proteins that can synthesize modified nucleic acids—acids that can increase the efficacy of mRNA vaccines such as the Pfizer and Modern COVID-19 vaccines, for example—Leconte explains that it’s just as important to convert those acids back into DNA at the end of experiments, since genetic information technologies use DNA in their readings. This new method will make it easier and less expensive for biotechnology labs to perform that necessary DNA conversion step.

Three alumnae led the project from inception to publication. Susanna Barrett ’19, now a PhD student at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, conceived of and developed the project idea during her senior year, after which the paper’s lead author, Arianna Thompson ’20, took over the experimentation and amassed the necessary data. Alum Aurora Weiden ’17 then wrote the code that Leconte’s lab used—and continues to use—for the project, an experience that led to her current role working with chemoinformatics at JP3 Measurement. Simone Gottlieb ’21, Madison Seto ’21, and Ananya Venkatesh ’21 contributed additional experiments and received co-authorship credit.

“More than any project in the lab, this has been by far the most student-driven, and I consider that to be the greatest success of all,” Leconte says.

The opportunity to work closely with faculty on a real-world scientific issue has fueled career successes for Leconte lab alumnae. Barrett, who recently received the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship for her doctoral research on peptide engineering, believes that the research experience and leadership roles she held in the lab were “absolutely critical” to her development as a scientist and her decision to apply to graduate school. “Much of my success thus far would not have been possible without the supportive, collaborative, and encouraging environment that I was so fortunate to be a part of in the Leconte lab, in the Keck Science Department, and at Scripps as a whole,” she says. She hopes to pursue a career in academia, with the specific goal of working at a primarily undergraduate institution such as Scripps: “I hope that I can give back to the scientific community by inspiring, supporting, and advocating for young female scientists the way that Aaron and many of the Keck faculty did for me.”