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Prof. Musa Mhlanga

CSIR principal researcher and technical manager of the biomedical translational research initiative

Mhlanga’s research focuses on harnessing the power of nucleic acids, specifically molecular beacons, to understand the most fundamental process in cell biology at the two important scales at which biology occurs, at the single molecule level as well as the systems level.

Full Profile

Mhlanga holds a PhD in cell biology from New York University.  He joined the CSIR in 2008 as a research group leader for biophysics and gene expression and is currently the technical manager of the biomedical translational research initiative – an initiative of the CSIR and University of Cape Town, funded by the Department of Science and Technology.

Mhlanga’s research has focused on harnessing the power of nucleic acids, specifically molecular beacons, to understand the most fundamental process in cell biology at the two important scales at which biology occurs, namely at the single molecule level and the systems level. His scientific career has made significant contributions to each of these scales.

At the beginning of his graduate career at The Rockefeller University and then at the New York University - Mhlanga used the sensitivity of molecular beacons to develop in vitro and in vivo methods to detect single nucleotide polymorphisms in the diagnosis of disease, used widely throughout the world today, and image RNA function in living cells revealing novel aspects of RNA localisation and trafficking. Then as a United States, NSF post-doctoral fellow, he put the ability to follow gene expression in real-time at the centre of his approaches in understanding RNA metabolism and nuclear architecture. With the help of physicists and mathematicians he developed image analysis algorithms for this purpose. Mhlanga then extended these approaches to their use on broader scale for screening by the marriage of automated microscopy and image analysis. Mhlanga has developed systems/synthetic biology approaches (6 patents filed 2 awarded) to visualise the expression of host immune genes concurrent with bacterial infection.

In 2008, Mhlanga and his graduate students developed analytical tools which have become a widely used computational tool in the field. These approaches now extend to using chromatin capture and conformation tools as well as next-generation sequencing to more deeply understand the role of the ‘dark matter’  of the genome to understand gene expression.

Musa and his team focus on determining the various roles of chromatin architecture in transcription and if chromosomal kissing nucleates the formation of multigene complexes. They have harnessed the use of pathogens to decrypt this process and made seminal contributions in two areas. First they have shown for the first time the dependence of ‘gene kissing’ on transcriptional activation in multigene complexes. Furthermore, they have shown that these contacts occur in a hierarchical manner. Secondly, they have shown that pathogens utilise the dark matter of the genome (mirRNA and lincRNA) to direct host transcriptional and translational programmes. The team has thus gone from single molecule to genome-wide approaches to understand basic fundamentals.

Mhlanga was awarded a silver medal by South Africa’s Medical Research Council in 2014 for his scientific contributions.

Expertise: Biophysics; Cell biology; Gene engineering and expression 

Academic qualifications: 
  • PhD (Cell Biology), New York University, 2004
  • MPhil, (Cell Biology and Molecular Genetics), New York University, 1998

Publications

Contact Person

Prof. Musa Mhlanga

mmhlanga@csir.co.za