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Madeline Sherlock Wins Top Poster Prize at RNA Conference

October 20, 2016

Madeline Sherlock (MB&B) won the top poster prize at this year’s annual RNA Society meeting in Japan for her work on a molecular “trigger.” 

Her research in Ron Breaker’s lab focuses on a genetic switch in bacteria that was first discovered more than 10 years ago. This type of gene control device is called a “riboswitch” and composed of RNA — a biological macromolecule closely related to DNA.

Despite the efforts of scientists in our lab as well as many others, no one had uncovered the molecule that triggers this particular riboswitch to turn on the genes controlled by the RNA,” Sherlock says. “We knew the identity of this molecular triggering compound would be important to many forms of life, because so many different species utilize this riboswitch.

“To find this mystery compound, we tested thousands of different conditions and determined that only guanidine turns on genes by activating the riboswitch. Very little research had previously been done on guanidine, and no one had expected this molecule to be so important in biology. We have now proven that bacteria generate guanidine as a waste product when they are desperately searching for nutrients because food sources are limited.”

The award honors the progress her research team has made, “but there are even more questions now than when we started,” she says. “Since guanidine is toxic to cells, we were able to determine that genes controlled by the riboswitch help cells overcome poisoning by guanidine.” In addition to working on one of these guanidine-responsive proteins, she currently studies additional RNAs triggered by guanidine. “We have only just begun to understand guanidine biology.”

Sherlock grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, home to Pennsylvania State University, where she earned her undergraduate degree in both chemistry and German.

“When I was growing up I was originally intrigued by biology. Things like the diversity of life or how and why we get sick from diseases fascinated me. After I took chemistry in high school, I knew that was something I wanted to pursue, because it helped me understand the physical world around me. I combined my initial interest in biology with my knowledge of chemistry and ended up in a biochemistry lab for my graduate research.”

She became “absolutely hooked” on RNA biology in college. “I knew I wanted to continue in that field, and I also knew that Yale has an amazing community of RNA scientists across multiple departments and professors — my adviser Ron Breaker as well as Joan Steitz and Scott Strobel were scientists whose work I admired before I even applied here. I also felt a great sense of camaraderie within the MB&B department, and I couldn't have made a better decision.”

Outside the lab, Sherlock plays on the Structural Bases intramural softball team — currently the two-time defending champions, going for their third straight triumph. She also likes to run, hike, and bike, and recently participated in the Closer to Free ride that benefits the Smilow Cancer Center at Yale New Haven Hospital. “I have also been known to frequent local breweries and GPSCY,” she admits.