By now, we’re all familiar with the idea of DNA as a sort of living code book, an instruction manual for life. Jacqueline Barton has spent her career studying a very different aspect of life’s most fundamental molecule—its electrical charge.
Through her pioneering experiments, Barton was one of the first to demonstrate DNA’s electrical charge. Electrons can move and flow up and down the rungs of the DNA ‘ladder,’ she discovered. At first the discovery was controversial, but Barton soldiered on and has since won widespread approval for her breakthrough.
This electrical flow works remarkably well, but only if everything is stacked and paired correctly. Barton suggests thinking of it like a stack of copper pennies. If all the pennies are stacked correctly, they “can be conductive. But if one of the pennies is a little bit awry—if it’s not stacked so well—then you’re not going to be able to get good conductivity in it.”
Using that logic, Barton and her team have gone on to study how DNA’s electrical properties might be used to ‘police’ the genetic code. Mistakes—like a mismatched pair of base molecules—cause the flow to short-circuit. It’s possible that these electrical hiccups sound an alarm that let repair proteins know where they need to get to work.
Barton and her team use custom-built machines to shoot electrons through DNA sequences. That allows them to pinpoint the location and structure of genes and then scan them for damage. Barton hopes that one day her methods and machinery can be used to find and correct mutations before they become harmful.
Though chemistry wasn’t offered at the girls high school she attended, Barton immersed herself in math. When she finally got to take chemistry in college, she saw it as an exciting way to apply her math skills to real world problems. “At the beginning, it’s detective work—having a puzzle, a problem to solve” she says. “That was exciting.” Even after all this time, she’s still excited: “there are all sorts of interesting things to think about. You’re learning things that no one ever knew before.”