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Let’s Talk RNA: A Conversation with Dr. Hayden Huggins

What happens to an mRNA, the single-stranded RNA molecule transcribed from the DNA and coding for protein synthesis, after it gets transcribed? This one question led to an almost two-hour-long conversation between Dr. Hayden Huggins and myself. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in cellular and molecular biology at Appalachian State University, Dr. Huggins became fascinated with virology. As an undergraduate research intern, he maintained mammalian cell culture stocks in the biology department to aid in cancer research with the oncolytic virus VSV, or Vesicular Stomatitis Virus. Vesicular Stomatitis is a viral disease that can be caused by a few different viruses within the vesiculovirus genus and primarily affects farm animals. Several factors that made VSV a good candidate for this research were its ability to infect a wide range of cell lines, produce high virus yields, and replicate its cytoplasm without the need of a host cell. To him, viruses were a good way to investigate and understand how DNA is transcribed and how the transcribed product, mRNA, is then translated into proteins. However, in graduate school, his research focus shifted to the last step of gene expression, the step which influenced the course Dr. Huggins hopes to launch in fall of 2024!

Dr. Hayden Huggins
Dr. Hayden Huggins

 At the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University, Dr. Huggins, along with Dr. Brett D. Keiper, conducted research which focused on how selective mRNA regulation acted upon cell fate in germ cells. He told me that with his background on gene expression and translational regulation, he is “going to implement that and have students use little nematode worms to study gene expression.” When I really thought about it, I realized he was right when he said that most people focus on the DNA and RNA level but not so much as to what happens after RNA is transcribed from the DNA. The mRNA is not automatically translated to encode for proteins; instead, there is a step called translational regulation which regulates the informational flow including when and where protein synthesis occurs. His passion about the whole topic fascinated me. He took all these complex ideas and broke them down into principal components so that we stayed on the same page.

Dr. Huggins working in the lab
Dr. Huggins working in the lab.

“I’m interested in gene regulation as a whole. But specifically, that sort of last step in gene regulation of translational regulation. I think that it’s sort of the most interesting, and we sort of know the least about it in terms of gene regulation.”

– Dr. Hayden Huggins

Currently, Dr. Huggins is co-teaching BIT 410/510, a course on manipulating recombinant DNA. This course is designed to be a dual enrollment course for undergraduate (juniors and seniors) and graduate students, and is the core molecular biology biotechnology course. In the course, students are taught how to create recombinant DNA and express genes of interest in bacterial and eukaryotic systems. Additionally, he also co-teaches the BIT 471/571 course on RNA interference. However, for any underclassmen interested in biotechnology, Dr. Huggins, along with other instructors, offers a course in biotechnology and sustainability that does not have any prerequisites: BIT 295, a course focusing on using biotechnologies and genomic data to ask how microbes around us can help recycle electronic waste, is available to sophomores and up.