Felipe Garcia Quiroz is joining the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University on January 1, 2020, as an assistant professor.
He received his Ph.D. from Duke University and did postdoctoral work at Rockefeller University. In a short interview with Quiroz, he describes his research, reasons for joining the Coulter Department, future impact of his research, and shares some personal hobbies outside of research.
Can you please describe your research with a brief overview?
The goal of my laboratory is to decode and utilize the repetitive language that is apparent in nature’s recurrent use of repeat elements across genomes, RNAs, proteins and material systems. We approach this challenge through genetic engineering approaches in bacteria and mammalian tissues. A key property that we examine is the ability of repeat elements to encode self-assembly behavior, namely through liquid-liquid phase separation. Despite the prominent role of repetitive DNAs (reDNAs) in physiology and disease, reDNAs in genomes remain largely inaccessible to existing sequencing technologies. The gap is amplified at the level of repeat proteins (RPs), as they undergo extensive post-translational modifications (PTM) that alter their self-assembly but that are difficult to map. My lab pursues innovative approaches for synthesis, manipulation and sequencing of reDNAs, as well as unprecedented characterization of PTMs in RPs. Ultimately, we aim to use our understanding of nature’s repetitive language to build self-assembling nanotechnologies, as well as devise therapeutic approaches for human disorders involving phase separation, reDNAs and RPs that are intrinsically-disordered.
Why did you choose to join the BME department at Georgia Tech and Emory?
I was trained as a biomedical engineer all the way from college to graduate school, but then spent five years away from the BME community by conducting postdoctoral research in developmental and mammalian cell biology. To find a home for my independent research program, I first chose to focus on BME departments. I strongly felt that the multi-disciplinary BME community was best poised to enrich my research, and that as part of the community I could stimulate future trainees interested in a cross-cutting approach to research and discovery. As one of the leading BME programs in the country and given its location (I’m a city person), I was eager to explore BME at Georgia Tech and Emory. Throughout two campus visits, I saw firsthand the distinct personalities and strengths of Georgia Tech and of Emory, as well as the synergies that emerge as they come together within a department that exists in two campuses. I also realized that its unique position as a bridge between two universities motivated and enabled the department to permanently evolve and to seek greater academic, scientific and societal impact. Because I fully identify with that dynamism and desire to evolve, I chose to be a part of the future of BME at Georgia Tech and Emory. My laboratory will be physically located at Emory, but I look forward to walking the bridge between our two homes.
What do you see as the possible future impact of your work?
The current view of life within the cell largely ignores two elephants in the room. I expect that the impact of my work will come from bringing them to the spotlight. First, proteins are typically thought as well-defined 3D structures, when in reality they are often either fully unstructured or contain large unstructured domains (not included in crystal structures). We have begun to understand that such intrinsically-disordered proteins (IDPs) dictate high-order assembly in the cell through phase separation, but our knowledge is incipient. My work promises to advance our understanding of the phase separation behavior of IDPs and their regulation through post-translational modifications, as well as our ability to engineer IDPs to program self-assembly of novel nanomaterials. I am particularly intrigued by the outsize role that IDPs play in neurodegeneration and I hope that our work will eventually help us better interrogate and interfere, at the molecular level, with those processes. The second elephant in the room is the repetitive nature of genomes and the highly variable nature of those regions across species, among humans and in disease. Because repetitive DNAs (reDNAs) are difficult to sequence, they are often overlooked. Even the human genome remains unresolved in highly repetitive regions. Yet reDNAs often encode IDPs and are involved in processes as varied as RNA synthesis, chromosome instability and segregation, skin barrier quality, neurodegeneration and cancer. I foresee that the efforts of my lab in this area will uncover biological mechanisms and opportunities for therapeutic intervention that remain hidden in repetitive regions of our genome. Finally, through my research and teaching efforts, I hope to help consolidate the acquisition of genetic engineering tools as an integral component of training as a biomedical engineer.
When you are not doing research or teaching, what do you like to do?
Colombians love soccer and I am no exception. I play soccer regularly and actively follow my favorite teams. I find sports and the work ethic of professional athletes fascinating and inspiring, so I like to keep up with major sporting events (March Madness included), as well as the careers of not a small number of athletes. Whenever possible I seek opportunities to experience art and live music — for me, music and dancing often go together. While sports, art and music bring a healthy dose of balance to my life, my true balance and happiness come from pursuing spiritual growth, especially through community involvement in service and prayer.
Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering
Georgia Institute of Technology