When you see someone wearing gloves, you think they are protecting themselves from something. In my laboratory at the Pasteur Institute in Montevideo, Uruguay, we wear gloves to protect our samples from ourselves. We study RNA and some of the enzymes in our skin can break down these molecules.

I am a molecular biologist and I want to understand how cells talk to each other using their RNA. Cells sometimes release RNAs that travel from one cell to another where they can affect gene expression. We are also investigating how these traveling RNAs in human blood or urine samples can be used to diagnose diseases. We can examine all of the extracellular RNA in a sample and see if any of the molecules contain abnormalities that could indicate the presence of diseases such as cancer.

In this February picture, I’m using a syringe to inject a sample of extracellular RNA into a vertical column of porous resin beads. The column separates the contents of a sample according to size: small molecules get stuck in the pores, and larger substances fall through directly and come out faster in the end. A protein that carries an RNA molecule is large and comes out of the column quickly. When the sample is treated with enzymes to break down the RNA, the protein is released and later comes out of the column as it is now smaller. We study the difference between these rates of descent to determine which proteins interact with RNA.

Uruguay is a small country and research resources are limited. We often have to get creative – not only in our science, but also in the use of our resources. If a reviewer asks about an experiment that requires specific reagents that would take us months to complete, I may need to think of other ways to show the same thing. Finding alternatives is part of this task. It’s a way of approaching the most complex questions.