Virginia W. Cornish

Virginia W. Cornish

Research Interest


Nature readily creates and utilizes chemical diversity for the evolution of potent natural products, enzymes with new functions, and even complex systems. Rather than compete with Nature, my laboratory looks to co-opt biological systems to synthesize and evolve chemical diversity by bringing together modern methods in chemical synthesis and DNA technology. The last century saw a revolution in our understanding of the reactivity of small molecules and ability to synthesize small molecules of defined molecular structure, realized as the modern drug industry. My research aims to bring this level of control and understanding to complex biological systems. Manipulation of these biological systems should not only allow us to make new and useful materials on a whole new scale, but also provide fundamental insight into the mechanism of these complex biological systems. Our long-term goal is to understand protein function at the molecular level, looking at isolated proteins in solution, large protein complexes, and finally protein function in biological networks in living cells.

Chemical Complementation. Advances in computation and directed evolution hold promise for being able to understand and design protein catalysts with tailor-made structures and functions. Such proteins could be used as materials, reagents, and even therapeutics. The question of how a protein’s primary amino acid sequence dictates its three dimensional fold and function is not resolved and is of fundamental importance to our understanding of living systems and the design and synthesis of higher-order structures. Directed evolution attempts to recapitulate the natural evolution of proteins with new structures and functions, but on an experimentally accessible timescale. Genetic methods have the advantage of DNA encoding, but are limited to the repertoire of chemistry used by nature. Here we have sought to combine the advantages of genetic assays with the flexibility of synthetic chemistry by linking enzyme catalysis to traditional genetic assays for reporter gene transcription via small molecules. The genetics allows us to use DNA encoding, and the small molecule chemistry allows us to readily extend this assay to new chemical reactions. Currently, we are using directed evolution both to ask fundamental questions about the molecular basis for enzyme catalysis and to engineer enzymes with new and useful properties.

Ribosome Chemistry. The ribosomal biosynthetic machinery, a large complex of protein and RNA, is among Nature’s most sophisticated biosynthetic machineries. The ribosome in essence allows template-encoded synthesis of polymers of defined length and composition. Unlike in most biosynthetic machines, substrate recognition is separate from the catalytic center in the ribosome, suggesting it may be particular tolerant to substrate manipulation. Here, our goal is to extend efforts to use synthetic aminoacyl-tRNAs to expand the genetic code, instead to read-out the 64 natural codons with artificial substrates using a purified translation system. This project is in collaboration with Prof. Steve Blacklow and Dr. Tony Forster at Harvard Medical School. Currently, we are using this system for ribosome display of peptidomimetics and to test the adaptor hypothesis, one of the fundamental tenets of translation.

In Vivo Imaging. Finally, in collaboration with Prof. Mike Sheetz in Columbia’s Biological Sciences Department, we are developing methods for selectively labeling proteins with small molecules inside the cell. The short-term goal of this project is to provide chemical surrogates to GFP for multi-color tagging and FRET applications. The long-term goal is to extend the power of synthetic chemistry to living systems.


S. Billerbeck, J. Brisbois, N. Agmon, M. Jimenez, J. Temple, M. Shen, J.D. Boeke, V.W. Cornish. “A scalable peptide-GPCR language for engineering multicellular communication.” Nature Communications. (2018)

E. Herbst, P.A. Baldera-Aguayo, H. Lee, V.A. Cornish. “A Yeast Three Hybrid Assay for Metabolic Engineering of Tetracycline Derivatives.” Biochem. (2018).

R.C. Fleisher, V.W. Cornish, R.L. Gonzalez. “d-Amino Acid-Mediated Translation Arrest IS Modulated by the Identity of the Incoming Aminocac6o-tRNA.” Biochem. 57 (29): 4241-4246 (2018).



Y.Z. Ng, P.A. Baldera-Aguayo, V.W. Cornish. “Fluorescence Polarization Assay for Small Molecule Screen on Biosynthesized in 96-Well Microtiter Plates.” Biochem., 56, 5260-5268 (2017).

N. Ostrov, M. Jimenez, S. Billerbeck, J. Brisbois, J. Matragrano, A. Ager, V.W. Cornish. “A modular yeast biosensor for low-cost point-of-care pathogen detection.” Sci Adv., 3, e1603221 (2017).

L. Wei, Z. Chen, L. Shi, R. Long, A.V. Anzalone, L. Zhang, F. Hu, R. Yuste, V.W. Cornish, W. Min. “Super-multiplex vibrational imaging.” Nature, 544, 465-470 (2017).

R. Rogawski, I.V. Sergeyev, Y. Li, M.F. Ottaviani, V.W. Cornish, A.E. McDermott. “Dynamic Nuclear Polarization Signal Enhancement with High-Affinity Biradical Tag.” J. Phys. Chem. B, 121(6), 1169-1175 (2017).



A.V. Anzalone, Z. Chen, V.W. Cornish. “Synthesis of photoactivatable azido-acyl caged oxazine fluorophores for live-cell imaging.” Chem. Commun., 52, 9442-9445 (2016).

X. Hu, C. Jing, X. Xu, N. Nakazawa, V.W. Cornish, F.M. Margadant, M.P. Sheetz. “Cooperative Vinculin Binding to Talin Mapped by Time-Resolved Super Resolution Microscopy.” Nano Lett., 16(7), 4062-4068 (2016).

J.D. Boeke, G. Church, A. Hessel, N.J. Kelley, A. Arkin, Y. Cai, R. Carlson, A. Chakravarti, V.W. Cornish, L. Holt, F.J. Isaacs, T. Kuiken, M. Lajoie, T. Lessor, J. Lunshof, M.T. Maurano, L.A. Mitchell, J. Rine, S. Rosser, N.E. Sanjana, P.A. Silver, D. Valle, H. Wang, J.C. Way, L. Yang. “The Genome Project-Write.” Science, 353(6295), 126-127 (2016).

A.V. Anzalone, A.J. Lin, S. Zairis, R. Rabadan, V.W. Cornish. “Reprogramming eukaryotic translation with ligand-responsive synthetic RNA switches.” Nat Methods, 13, 458-458 (2016).



M.T. Englander, J.L. Avins, R.C. Fleisher, B. Liu, P.R. Effraim, J. Wang, K. Schulten, T.S. Leyh, R.L. Gonzalez Jr., V.W. Cornish. “The Ribosome Discriminates the Structure of the Amino Acid at its Peptidyl Transferase Center.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 112, 6038-6039 (2015).



W.S. Yang, R. SriRamaratnam, M.E. Welsch, K. Shimada, R. Skouta, V.W. Viswanathan, J.H. Cheah, P.A. Clemons, A.F. Shamji, C.B. Clish, L.M. Brown, A.W. Girotti, V.W. Cornish, S.L. Schreiber, B.R. Stockwell. “Regulation of Ferroptotic Cancer Cell Death by GPX4.” Cell, 156, 317-331 (2014).

T.Y. Wang, L.J. Friedman, J. Gelles, W. Min, A.A. Hoskins, V.W. Cornish. “The Covalent Trimethoprim Chemical Tag Facilitates Single Molecule Imaging with Organic Fluorophores.” Biophys. J., 106, 272-278 (2014).



M.D. Harton, L.M. Wingler, V.W. Cornish. “Transcriptional Regulation Improves the Throughput of Three-Hybrid Counter Selections in Saccharomyces cerevisiae.” Biotechnol. J., 8, 1485-1491 (2013).

C. Jing, V.W. Cornish. “Design, Synthesis and Application of the Trimethoprim Based Chemical Tag for Live-Cell Imaging.” Curr. Protoc. Chem. Biol., 5, 131-155 (2013).

Z. Chen, V.W. Cornish, W. Min. “Chemical Tags: Inspiration for Advanced Imaging Techniques.” Curr. Opin. Chem. Biol., 17, 637-643 (2013).

C. Jing, V.W. Cornish. “A Fluorogenic TMP-tag for High Signal-to-Background Intracellular Live Cell Imaging.” ACS Chem. Biol., 8, 1704-1712 (2013).

N. Ostrov, L.M. Wingler, V.W. Cornish. “Gene Assembly and Combinatorial Libraries in S. cerevisiae via Reiterative Recombination.” Methods Mol. Biol., 978, 187-203 (2013).

A.R. Shepard, R.E. Conrow, M. Rezwan, K. Rutschmann, I.-H. Pang, D. Auerbach, R.P. SriRamaratnam, V.W. Cornish. “Identification of PDE6D as a Molecular Target of Anecortave Acetate Via Methotrexate-Anchored Yeast Three-Hybrid Screen.” ACS Chem. Biol., 8, 549-558 (2013).

A.V. Anzalone, T.Y. Wang, Z. Chen, V.W. Cornish. “A common diaryl ether intermediate for the gram-scale synthesis of oxazine and xanthene fluorophores.” Angew Chem Int Ed Engl, 52(2):650-4 (2013).  [pubmed] [full-text]



D.W. Romanini, P. Peralta-Yahya, V. Mondol, V.W. Cornish. “A Heritable Recombination System for Synthetic Darwinian Evolution in Yeast.” ACS Synth Biol, 1(12):602–609 (2012). [full-text]

J.F. Ruble, S.T. Lefurgy, V.W. Cornish, R.A. Powers. “Structural analysis of the Asn152Gly mutant of P99 cephalosporinase.” Acta Crystallogr D Biol Crystallogr, 68(Pt 9):1189-93 (2012). [pubmed] [full-text]

Z. Chen, C. Jing, S.S. Gallagher, M.P. Sheetz, V.W. Cornish. “Second-generation covalent TMP-tag for live cell imaging.” J Am Chem Soc., 134(33):13692-9 (2012). [pubmed] [full-text]

E. Gatzogiannis, Z. Chen, L. Wei, R. Wombacher, Y.T. Kao, G. Yefrmov, V.W. Cornish, W. Min. “Mapping protein-specific micro-environments in live cells by fluorescence lifetime imaging of a hybrid genetic-chemical molecular rotor tag.” Chem Commun (Camb)., 48(69):8694-6 (2012). [pubmed] [full-text]

D.W. Romanini, V.W. Cornish. “Protein labelling: Playing tag with proteins.” Nat Chem, 4(4):248-50 (2012). [pubmed] [full-text]



L.M. Wingler, V.W. Cornish. “Reiterative Recombination for the in vivo assembly of libraries of multigene pathways.” PNAS, 108(37):15135-15140 (2011). [pubmed] [full-text]

C.R. Jing, V.W. Cornish. “Chemical Tags for Labeling Proteins Inside Living Cells.” Acc Chem Res, 44(9):784-792 (2011). [pubmed] [full-text]

R. Wombacher, V.W. Cornish. “Chemical tags: applications in live cell fluorescence imaging.” J Biophotonics, 4(6):391-402 (2011). [pubmed] [full-text]

L.M. Wingler, V.W. Cornish. “A library approach for the discovery of customized yeast three-hybrid counter selections.” Chembiochem., 12(5):715-7 (2011). [pubmed] [full-text]

A.A. Hoskins, L.J. Friedman, S.S. Gallagher, D.J. Crawford, E.G. Anderson, R. Wombacher, N. Ramirez, V.W. 0Cornish, J. Gelles, M.J. Moore. “Ordered and dynamic assembly of single spliceosomes.” Science, 331(6022):1289-95 (2011). [pubmed] [full-text]



N. Pirakitikulr, N. Ostrov, P. Peralta-Yahya, V.W. Cornish. “PCRless library mutagenesis via oligonucleotide recombination in yeast.” Protein Sci, 19(12):2336-46 (2010). [pubmed][full-text]

R. Wombacher, M. Heidbreder, S. van de Linde, M.P. Sheetz, M. Heilemann, V.W. Cornish, M. Sauer. “Live-cell super-resolution imaging with trimethoprim conjugates.” Nat Methods, 7, 717-9 (2010).[pubmed] [full-text]

S.S. Gallagher, C. Jing, D.S. Peterka, M. Konate, R. Wombacher, L.J. Kaufman, R. Yuste, V.W. Cornish. “A trimethoprim-based chemical tag for live cell two-photon imaging.” Chembiochem, 11, 782-784 (2010). [full-text]

Y. Cai, O. Rossier, N.C. Gauthier, N. Biais, M.-A. Fardin, X. Zhang, L.W. Miller, B. Ladoux, V.W. Cornish, M.P. Sheetz. “Cytoskeletal coherence requires myosin-IIA contractility.” J. Cell Sci., 123, 413-423 (2010). [pubmed] [full-text]



P.R. Effraim, J. Wang, M.T.Englander, J. Avins, T.S. Leyh, R.L. Gonzalez Jr., V.W. Cornish.  “Natural amino acids do not require their native tRNAs for efficient selection by the ribosome.” Nat. Chem. Biol., 5, 947-953 (2009). [full-text]

M. Pavlov, R. Watts, Z. Tan, V.W. Cornish, M. Ehrenberg, A. Forster. “Slow Peptide Bond Formation by Proline and Other N-alkylamino Acids in Translation.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., 106, 50-54 (2009). [PubMed]

V.W. Cornish, S.S. Gallagher. “Fluorescence in Living Systems: Applications in Chemical Biology.” Wiley Encyclopedia of Chemical Biology, T.P. Begley, Editor. 2009, John Wiley & Sons, Inc.: Hoboken. pp. 28-38 (2009).

S.S. Gallagher, J.E. Sable, M.P. Sheetz, V.W. Cornish.   “An In Vivo Covalent TMP-tag Based on Proximity-Induced Reactivity.”  ACS Chem. Biol., 4 547-556 (2009). [PubMed]



H. Tao, P. Peralta-Yahya, J. Decatur, V. W. Cornish. “Characterization of a New Glycosynthase Cloned Using Chemical Complementation.” ChemBioChem 9, 681-684 (2008).

S.S. Gallagher, V. W. Cornish. “Chemical Biology Tools for Live Cell Imaging” Encyclopedia for Chemical Biology, Germany, Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. (Invited Review; In Press 2008).

J. L. Czlapinski, M. W. Schelle, L. W. Miller, S. T. Laughlin, J. J. Kohler, V. W. Cornish, C. R. Bertozzi. “Conditional Glycosylation in Eukaryotic Cells Using a Biocompatible Chemical Inducer of Dimerization.” J. Am. Chem. Soc. 130, 13186-13187 (2008).

P. Peralta-Yahya, B. T. Carter, H. Lin, H. Tao, V. W. Cornish. “A High-Throughput Selection for Cellulase Catalysts Using Chemical Complementation.” J. Am. Chem. Soc. 130, 17446-17452 (2008).

J. E. Bronson, W. W. Mazur, V. W. Cornish. “Transcription Factor Logic Using Chemical Complementation.” Molecular BioSystems 4, 56 (2008).



N. T. Calloway, M. Choob, A. Sanz, M. P. Sheetz, L. W. Miller, V. W. Cornish. “Optimized Fluorescent Trimethoprim Derivatives for In Vivo Protein Labeling.” ChemBioChem. 8, 767-774 (2007).

B. Zhang, Z. Tan, L. G. Dickson, M. N. L. Nalam, V. W. Cornish, A. Forster. “Specificity of Translation for N-Alkyl Amino Acids” J. Am. Chem. Soc. 129, 11316-11317 (2007).