Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for precise and rapid molecular diagnosis and testing of viral genomes has significantly increased. Many countries had to run PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests, which have a relatively long turnaround time from sample to result in order to accurately diagnose the presence of SARS-CoV-2. Instead of waiting on results for hours, what if future pandemics could be more easily diagnosed within minutes? What if molecular diagnosis could become more readily available in our daily lives so that everybody can easily test themselves on viral disease markers instead of second-guessing and relying on symptoms? What if we could develop molecular diagnosis tests with high sensitivity and specificity that can then detect early-onset diseases?
Youngeun strongly believes the key answer to all the questions above lies in DNA, a powerful material that can be used beyond the genetic code of life. DNA strands are programmable (enabling one to program and synthesize a desired sequence), adjustable (allowing one to dynamically control or tune the length and structure based on input stimulus), and structurally stable (as discovered in fossils from ancient times). Youngeun has studied DNA and developed novel techniques in the past 10+ years, including transmutable nanoparticles with reconfigurable DNA strands and single-strand recombinase polymerase amplification (ssRPA) techniques that allow SARS-CoV-2 detection within minutes. Her research also led to an opportunity in founding a start-up company (3EO Health) as one of the scientific co-founders. She has recently started as an assistant professor in Materials Science and Engineering at Seoul National University to carry on her enthusiasm and passion for developing new materials using DNA.
Youngeun plans to encourage and mentor younger students to study and research nucleic acid-based strands as next-generation materials, in hopes of not only enabling rapid day-to-day molecular diagnosis, but also developing materials with new properties – all utilizing DNA, a fantastic material nature already gave us.