Michelle D. Wang is recognized for pioneering optical trapping techniques to study DNA mechanics and topology in fundamental processes. She is the James Gilbert White Distinguished Professor in Physical Sciences at Cornell University. She is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. She received a B.S. in Physics with a concentration in Nuclear Physics from Nanjing University and a Ph.D. in Biophysics from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. During her postdoctoral work at Princeton University, she and colleagues performed landmark experiments to enable optical trapping for tracking and stalling RNA polymerase and contributed to the inception of the single-molecule field. In 1998, she joined the Department of Physics at Cornell University, where her lab invented the angular optical trap (AOT), the DNA unzipping mapper and staller, and the nanophotonic standing-wave array trap (nSWAT). Using these techniques, her lab has performed landmark experiments and made technological breakthroughs that have changed the research landscape and understanding of the impacts of topology on essential cellular functions.

Research Interests

The helical nature of DNA dictates that translocating motor proteins will necessarily have to rotate DNA, resulting in an intricate coordination of cellular machinery during fundamental processes. This topological complexity has presented significant barriers to experimentation. By developing state-of-the-art (and often one-of-a-kind) instruments to directly and precisely measure molecular extensions, forces, rotations, and torques, Michelle Wang investigates the impacts of DNA mechanics and topology. Using the AOT, which allows direct measurements of torque and rotation, her lab has measured the torque RNA polymerase can generate during transcription. Combined with her earlier work, this accomplishes the first measurements of the force and torque of any DNA-based motor. Her lab has also discovered a novel role of chromatin in eukaryotic DNA replication – chromatin's torsional mechanics limit daughter strand intertwining, thus facilitating chromosome segregation. In addition, her technical innovation has led to numerous other powerful methods, notably the DNA unzipping techniques and nSWAT – the first on-chip nanophotonic platform for simultaneous and precise manipulation and measurements of biomolecules. Her work removes long-standing experimental barriers, broadens the utility of optical trapping, and reveals new and unexpected mechanistic insights into the broad impacts of topology.

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Primary Section

Section 13: Physics

Secondary Section

Section 29: Biophysics and Computational Biology