Ag Research Spotlight:

Barbara Golden

“We want to understand how molecules within a cell function. It is out of basic science like this that the tools of tomorrow will be found.” –Barbara Golden

The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for September 2012 underscores the theme “utilizing molecular approaches to expand the frontiers of agriculture and life sciences.”


When Barbara Golden completed her Ph.D. at Duke University in 1993, the field she trained to enter – ribozymology – was still young. Golden honed her skills in a postdoctoral position at the University of Colorado before joining the Purdue faculty in 1998. Now, she says, years of trial and error are paying off in accelerating progress toward understanding the functional RNA molecules called ribozymes.


Ribozymes fold into complex structures that allow them to perform chemical reactions in a cell. Golden creates and studies three-dimensional pictures of ribozymes using biochemistry, molecular biology and X-ray crystallography at the Argonne National Laboratory. Her team crystallizes the molecules and places them in a brilliant X-ray beam. The crystal scatters the X-rays in predictable ways. Golden collects this data as a diffraction pattern, which she uses to back calculate the molecule’s structure. It takes three or four years to determine a new structure and to fully understand its significance.


If Golden and her fellow scientists can figure out how a fundamental molecule of life carries out a chemical reaction, they may be able to modify it to perform a slightly different chemical reaction; design a function into a molecule that previously had none; or to use these molecules to toggle genes on and off in a controlled fashion. Ribozymes also might provide a snapshot into the nature of the first self-replicating molecules on Earth – a concept called the RNA World.


“When we back calculate the structure, we see a map, in three-dimensional space, of our favorite molecule of the moment. At that point, you’re the only person in the world who knows what that molecule looks like. That’s pretty thrilling.”


Golden considers the ability to communicate the importance of her research – to scientists, a grant review panel, class or general audience – crucial to advancing her work. In February she spoke to a lay audience about the RNA World and “how the simplest of molecules under ideal conditions may have set in motion life as we know it” during the public forum Science on Tap. “It was very challenging,” she acknowledges. “It took me so long to prepare, but at the end of it, folks were asking the right questions.”​​​

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