Virginia Cornish is the Helena Rubinstein Professor in the Department of Chemistry and a Co-PI of the NeuroTechnology Center (NTC) at Columbia University. She has a long track record in protein engineering and chemical biology, designing novel fluorescence molecular probes for neural imaging with orthogonal chemical and optical properties.
Nature readily creates and utilizes chemical diversity for the evolution of potent natural products, enzymes with new functions, and even complex systems. Rather than compete with Nature, my laboratory looks to co-opt biological systems to synthesize and evolve chemical diversity by bringing together modern methods in chemical synthesis and DNA technology. The last century saw a revolution in our understanding of the reactivity of small molecules and ability to synthesize small molecules of defined molecular structure, realized as the modern drug industry. My research aims to bring this level of control and understanding to complex biological systems. Manipulation of these biological systems should not only allow us to make new and useful materials on a whole new scale, but also provide fundamental insight into the mechanism of these complex biological systems. Our long-term goal is to understand protein function at the molecular level, looking at isolated proteins in solution, large protein complexes, and finally protein function in biological networks in living cells.
In collaboration with several Professors from Columbia’s Biological Sciences, Chemistry and Neuroscience Departments, we are developing methods for selectively labeling proteins with small molecules inside the cell (Gallagher, Sable et al. 2009; Gallagher, Jing et al 2010; Miller, Sable et al 2004). The short-term goal of this project is to provide chemical surrogates to GFP for multi-color tagging and FRET applications (Wombacher, Heidbreder et al 2010; Jing, Cornish 2013). The long-term goal is to extend the power of synthetic chemistry to living systems.