Mariel Vazquez, who earned her Ph.D. in math at FSU, has received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for her research. She applies pure math to the biological mysteries of DNA, studying its entanglement as it packs tightly into living cells.
Born and raised in Mexico City, Vazquez became fascinated with math and biology in high school. "I found pure mathematics to be absolutely beautiful but I didn't know how I could apply it to biology," Vazquez said. That changed when she became an undergraduate at the National Autono- mous University of Mexico and attended a series of talks about DNA topology - the application of knot theory to the study of DNA.
"In order to fit into the cell, the double helix is twisted and coiled around itself and around proteins...We'll use mathematics to study the enzymatic mechanism and computer simulations to determine the most probable pathways of disentanglement" Mariel Vazquez
Vazquez attended FSU from 1995 until 2000. During her time in Tallahassee, she studied under Professor De Witt Sumners, one of the seminal researchers in the emerging field of DNA topology. After earning her Ph.D., she spent five years as a postdoctoral researcher and visiting assistant professor at University of California, Berkeley, and finally joined the faculty at San Francisco State University in 2005, where she is currently an associate professor of mathematics.
"When DNA is packed into a cell it doesn't look like the straight double helix that we see in textbook pictures," Vazquez says. "In order to fit into the cell, the double helix is twisted and coiled around itself and around proteins."
One of nature's problems is that the two strands of the DNA's double helix must be separated and unwound in order to be copied, allowing the genome to replicate. Scientists have found enzymes which disentangle DNA, allowing it to replicate, but much is still to be learned about how they work.
These enzymes are vital for the funcioning of healthy cells in all living organisms. They also play an important role in allowing bacteria and other malignant cells to multiply, making them targets for antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs. In bacterial DNA, the double helix is bent around and joined in a circle. When the DNA replicates, it produces two interlocked circular DNA molecules - like two links in a paper chain - that can't be separated without the help of an enzyme. Vazquez and her colleagues at Oxford University are studying the action of an enzyme that disentangles DNA in the bacterium Escherichia coli (E. coli). "We'll use mathematics to study the enzymatic mechanism and computer simulations to determine the most probable pathways of disentanglement," Vazquez says.
The CAREER grant of nearly $600,000 awarded to Vazquez will help her develop international partnerships with mathematicians, biologists, and computer scientists to investigate how these enzymes work. The grant is awarded to faculty early in their careers who are conducting innovative research and finding creative ways to integrate research and education.