• Tina Lui
  • Tina Liu
  • Assistant Professor
  • Department: Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry
  • Program(s): Biochemistry Graduate Program, Cell and Developmental Biology Graduate Program, Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Graduate Program
  • Major Research Interest(s): Biochemistry
  • Rotating Faculty
  • Phone: 1.8484459863
  • Center for Advanced Biotechnology & Medicine
  • 679 Hoes Lane West, Room 304
  • Piscataway, NJ 08854
  • Key Words: Microbial defense pathways, CRISPR-Cas systems, nucleotide signaling, nucleic acid detection, diagnostics, biochemistry, molecular biology, biotechnology
  • Lab Site URL

Bacteria and archaea are the most abundant organisms on Earth and are connected to myriad aspects of our lives, from helping make the food we eat, to impacting our health and well-being, to shaping the environment we live in. Like us, they also face the threat of infection by their viruses, which are called phages. As a result, microbes have evolved diverse immune systems to protect themselves. CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeat)-Cas (CRISPR-associated) loci are a class of prokaryotic adaptive immune systems that use RNA-guided effector complexes to defend against phages and other mobile genetic elements. Our lab aims to understand the diverse mechanisms by which CRISPR-Cas systems work, and use these insights to engineer new tools for biotechnology and medicine. We plan to employ versatile approaches, including biochemistry, molecular engineering, molecular, cell, and structural biology, to achieve these aims.

Exploring the diverse biology of prokaryotic immune systems

CRISPR-Cas systems are perhaps best known for their applications in genome engineering, in which Class 2 CRISPR effectors, like Type II Cas9 and Type V Cas12, programmably and precisely edit DNA in a variety of cell types and organisms. However, Class 1 CRISPR systems, which include Types I, III, and IV, are far more abundant and widespread in nature. During my postdoc, I defined the nucleic acid targeting preference of a Class 1 CRISPR complex called Type III CRISPR Csm. Csm can degrade RNA and DNA, as well as produce signaling molecules that have the potential to activate many different downstream effector proteins, including nucleases, proteases, membrane proteins, and transcription factors. How these work and their role in immunity is not well understood. We aim to explore the diverse functions, mechanisms, and components of the Type III CRISPR signaling pathway. This could reveal entirely new layers of biology, redefining CRISPR as being much more than a pair of molecular scissors. It would also lay the foundation for developing novel tools for cellular engineering.

Developing new technologies for nucleic acid detection and disease diagnostics

Conventional PCR-based methods for viral RNA detection are highly sensitive, but lack the simplicity and speed to be easily utilized for point-of-care diagnostics. CRISPR-associated (Cas) nucleases offer an attractive alternative, given their ability to directly bind and recognize RNA sequences. We previously showed that by deploying two unrelated Cas nucleases in tandem, we could detect as few as ~31 molecules of SARS-CoV-2 genomic RNA per microliter, a sensitivity that would be relevant for community surveillance of COVID-19. We also adapted this “FIND-IT” (Fast Integrated Nuclease Detection in Tandem) assay to function in a compact microfluidic device, illustrating its feasibility within a point-of-care diagnostic workflow. We aim to better understand and engineer this tandem nuclease chemistry for improved sensitivity, speed, and versatility of nucleic acid detection. We are also interested in adapting this approach for a broad range of diseases, i.e. cancer and infectious disease, and research applications.