College College Biology and Chemistry College Engineering

Doctors Not Required: Detecting Disease with Nucleic Acid Bioengineering

An analysis on nucleic acid bioengineering, which focuses on leveraging the principles of biology to improve technology and natural systems that have evolved after millions of years.

Image from Quest Diagnostics

Since the advent of medical practice in Ancient Greece, human disease treatment has been primarily based on visible exterior symptoms (blood cell count, body temperature, etc.). Human disease is either caused by foreign pathogens or DNA mutation (ex. cancer and hereditary disease) and is often misdiagnosed when treatment focuses on external symptoms. Precision medicine is the solution to inaccurate diagnosis of human disease and involves utilizing molecular information to guide treatment. The central challenge in precision medicine, however, is the minuscule size of DNA sequence variations among the massive amount of total DNA. DNA sequences in pathogens or hereditary diseases are more specific and point to the particular technical challenge for DNA molecular diagnostics: detecting harmful DNA among the sheer quantity of DNA that is around.

Nucleic acid bioengineering focuses on leveraging the principles of biology to improve technology and natural systems that have evolved after millions of years. Genetic engineers change genes between organisms and model how gene expression occurs in environments through computing. Synthetic biologists create designs of properties in biology to produce selected functions. Industries involving nucleic acid engineering include biotech companies, material design firms, drug companies, energy producers, consultants, patent lawyers, and investment advisors (2). Rice University hosts the Nucleic Acid Bioengineering Laboratory (NABLab), led by David Yu Zhang. The purpose of the NABLab is to understand the biophysics of nucleic acid hybridization, develop novel genome and transcriptome profiling technologies, and translate these technologies into non-invasive cancer diagnostics (1). Pathogens, carrying disease, contain DNA sequences to characterize its function. Finding the foreign pathogens and the mutations of DNA among benign DNA is the primary focus of Zhang’s laboratory (1). Many diseases are difficult to diagnose by doctors without symptoms. Lassa fever is an example of an illness with little detectable symptoms. Lassa hemorrhagic fever is a highly contagious illness caused by the Lassa virus. Lassa is regular in the “bars” of West Africa and its nearly undetectable nature strikes fear into the hearts of patients and doctors. nucleic acid bioengineering can help identify viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHF) such as Lassa, Ebola, and Marburg because treatment of pathogens through DNA information as it becomes more accurate and precise. Principal investigator David Zhang’s development of enzyme-free disease diagnostics would make screenings more widely available. The NABLab has three primary research areas: improving the science of DNA and RNA folding, developing clinical diagnostic tools and devices based on analysis of DNA and RNA, and the development of nucleic acid-based molecular research tools (1). Non-covalent catalysis techniques developed in the NABLab improve targeting of RNA interference and understanding of alternative splicing with the help of chemistry and computing. This targeting and understanding stem from predicting DNA and RNA secondary and tertiary structure. Diseases contain nucleic acids that could serve as biomarkers. Nucleic acids, simply put, are macromolecules to code for life. Nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA carry hereditary information for instructions to code for proteins that allow cells, tissues, organs, organisms overall to function and are made out of nucleotides. Accurate enzyme-free methods of discriminating and amplification of nucleic acid biomarkers could provide greater diagnostics and non-invasive screening (1). The NABLab also studies other biological functions of nucleic acids, besides storage of genetic information.

Currently, the NABLab is a prominent research center for developing technology to improve the speed, accuracy, and comprehensiveness of analyzing DNA (from patient blood samples). An example of their progress includes the development of molecular reagents that remove healthy human DNA from large DNA samples. The development of disease diagnostics and rapid commercialization of early detection DNA tests can improve cancer prevention and reduce the number of patients dying from diseases each year.


(1) David Yu Zhang. (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 21, from

(2) Nucleic Acid Engineering. (n.d.). Retrieved May 21, 2018, from

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