Winner of FAOBMB Award for Research Excellence 2018

Professor Nieng Yan

School of Life Sciences, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

Dr. Nieng Yan is at a leading position in structural biology of membrane transporters and ion channels. She received her B.S. degree from the Department of Biological Sciences & Biotechnology, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, in 2000. She then pursued her PhD in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University under the supervision of Prof. Yigong Shi between 2000 and 2004. She was the regional winner of the Young Scientist Award (North America) co-sponsored by Science/AAAS and GE Healthcare in 2005 for her thesis on the structural and mechanistic study of programmed cell death. She continued her postdoctoral training at Princeton University, focusing on the structural characterization of intramembrane proteases. In 2007, she joined the faculty of School of Medicine, Tsinghua University. Her lab has been mainly focusing on the structural and functional study of membrane transport proteins exemplified by the glucose transporters and Nav/Cav channels. In 2012 and 2013, she was promoted to tenured professor and Bayer Endowed Chair Professor, respectively. Dr. Yan was an HHMI international early career scientist in 2012-2017, Cheung Kong Scholar, the recipient of the 2015 Protein Society Young Investigator Award and the 2015 Beverley & Raymond Sackler International Prize in Biophysics, and the Alexander M. Cruickshank lecturer at the Gordon Research Conference on membrane transport proteins in 2016.

Nieng Yan’s laboratory is primarily focused on the understanding of the chemical and physical principles of membrane transport mediated by secondary transporters, uniporters, and channels. They seek to answer the following questions: 1. The architecture of physiologically important transporters and channels; 2. The molecular basis underlying substrate selection; 3. Conformational changes of the transporters accompanying each transport cycle; 4. The electrochemical-mechanical coupling mechanism of the transporters; 5. The electromechanical couple mechanism of voltage-gated ion channels. To address these fundamental questions, Yan and colleagues selected a number of representative proton-coupled symporters, uniporters, and voltage-gated Na+ (Nav) and Ca2+ (Cav) channels for structural and biochemical characterizations.

Dr. Yan has been a major driver for advancing the structural and mechanistic understanding of the Major Facilitator Superfamily (MFS) transporters, the largest and ubiquitous secondary transporter family. She resolved the first structures of an outward-open MFS transporter (the L-fucose:proton symporter FucP) and of the substrate-bound MFS transporter (the D-xylose:proton symporter XylE, a bacterial homologue of human glucose transporters). More importantly, she has solved the first human secondary transporter, the long-sought-after glucose transporter GLUT1 and its closely related GLUT3 in three distinct states.  The systematic structural investigations complemented by biochemical, biophysical, and computational analysis provided important insights into proton-driven uphill translocation of sugars across membrane and revealed the molecular basis for the alternating access mechanism of sugar transporters.

Dr. Yan always employs state-of-the-art technologies to push forward to the forefront. Since 2014, using single-particle electron cryo-microscopy she reported a number of landmark structures at near atomic resolutions, including the largest ion channels RyR1 and RyR2 in multiple functional states, the voltage-gated calcium channel Cav1.1 complex, and two eukaryotic voltage-gated sodium channels. These structures set the foundation for elucidating the molecular basis of ion selectivity and voltage sensing, and the excitation-contraction coupling, one of the most fundamental physiological processes.

In her early stage of independent career, Nieng Yan has also made significant contributions to the abscisic acid signaling in plants, elucidation of sequence specific recognition of double-stranded DNA and single-stranded RNA by TAL Effectors and Pentatricopeptide Repeat proteins (PPR), respectively. Her research has been cited into runners-up to “Breakthrough of the Year” by Science in 2009 and 2012.

Dr Yan took up a position in mid-2017 in the Department of Molecular Biology, Princeton University, New Jersey, USA.

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