Novel DNA Modifications—an in2science blog

by Judahne Medley

in2science UK is an award-winning charity which matches school students from disadvantaged backgrounds to research placements, giving them the opportunity to pursue their interests in STEM subjects. This summer, The Oxford Scientist, was pleased to provide free copies of the magazine to students who came to the University of Oxford. Two of these students – Emily Kyle and Judahne Medley – have written blogs to share their experience of their exciting research placements. Emily was a finalist and Judahne the overall winner of the in2science blog competition.

Find out more about the work in2science do by visiting their website:

I was curious to experience what it is like to be at the frontline of scientific research, so I applied to in2science. I was delighted when I found out I’d been accepted, but when I heard I’d be working in the Physical & Theoretical Chemistry building at the University of Oxford, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I couldn’t shake the image of bespectacled faces and Einstein haired boffins.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to have been greeted by Jack Hardwick, my in2science supervisor, a PhD student with a tall stature and a warm smile. He introduced me to the friendly and welcoming nucleic acid research group, supervised by Professor Tom Brown. I discovered that they create chemical modifications to DNA that don’t exist in nature, giving it new functionality.

Jack walked me through each step. First, using the tools of organic chemistry—boiling flasks, test tubes, reactive chemicals—they construct unnatural DNA building blocks. Then, they hook these up to a machine—a DNA synthesiser—and type in the DNA base sequence they want. And finally, with the click of a mouse, they effectively print the DNA.

Now that we have our modified DNA, what can we use it for in the lab? Well, for example, they have just developed some DNA modifications that act as atomic antennas. Two modifications at different parts of the DNA communicate with each other, allowing us to measure the distance between them (Figure 2). These distances are on the scale of a hundred thousandth of the width of a human hair. Measuring such tiny distances helps us to understand how biomolecules interact, not only in test tubes, but also in our bodies. This is important, because to fight diseases, we must know how they work at the molecular level. Knowledge is half the battle.

Figure 2. The group in Oxford has recently developed DNA modifications that communicate with each other, allowing the distances between them to be calculated.

The ability to modify DNA has also given rise to the development of a plethora of potential treatments. For example, in muscular dystrophy, genetic mutation leads to faulty instructions for making proteins. Modified-DNA drugs can be used to intercept and help correct these instructions and are already improving the lives of sufferers. Perhaps soon we’ll see similar drugs that target cancer.

I would like to thank everyone in the nucleic acid research group for welcoming me with such warmth and to in2scienceuk for presenting me with this opportunity. I would also like to give a special thanks to Jack for his generosity, kindness and helping me foster my passion for science. Words can’t describe how much I appreciate the time we spent together. I can’t think of any other way I would’ve liked to have spent that week of summer. It was invaluable to me.