Ph.D. student wins Tabor award

for elucidating pathway

Published October 01 2017

Emily Yang won the JBC/Tabor award in June at the North
American Arabidopsis Steering Committee’s 28th International Conference on Arabidopsis
Research in St. Louis.
photo courtesy of Emily yang

Emily Jie-Ning Yang, a Ph.D. student in Meng Chen’s laboratory at University of California, Riverside, is the recipient of a 2017 Journal of Biological Chemistry/Herbert Tabor Young Investigator Award for her work in elucidating a novel pathway connecting light sensing and chloroplast biogenesis in plants. Her research looks at how different cellular compartments, such as the nucleus and chloroplast, communicate.

JBC Associate Editor Joseph Jez of Washington University selected Yang for the award at an Arabidopsis research conference in St. Louis in June. Jez was looking for “work that captured ‘biological chemistry’ in a broad sense and went from the molecular level up to the cell/organism,” he said. Yang’s research piqued Jez’s scientific curiosity. “Imagine yourself as a seedling just coming out of a seed in sunlight — how do you sense light from the environment, and how does that light trigger changes in your budding leaves to make you green?” he said. “If you grew in the dark, your stem and leaves would be a pale white.” This is a fascinating question because photosynthesis — the conversion of light into matter — is at the basis of most forms of life on Earth.

Yang and her colleagues used a genetic screen in the plant Arabidopsis to find players with dual function of light sensing and chloroplast biogenesis. She identified and characterized one such player, which she named RCBL, short for regulator for chloroplast biogenesis in light signaling. “We are the first group reporting that this protein is dual-targeted to the nucleus and chloroplasts and involved in two distinct mechanisms in different compartments,” she said.

Jez liked how Yang’s developmental biology question set up future mechanistic work, some of which she already has done. She found that the C-terminal of RCBL forms a thioredoxinlike fold but without reductase activity; instead, it participates in protein–protein interaction. Details of this pathway will follow in a future publication.

In naming RCBL, Yang and her adviser considered “helios” and “hyperion,” both gods of light and consistent with the founding member of this pathway, hemera. “But in the end, we decided that the name of the gene has to reflect its function,” she said.

Yang was born and raised in Taipei City, Taiwan. She received a bachelor’s degree from National Taiwan University. She was inspired to pursue a Ph.D. in biology by her undergraduate research experience, during which she said she learned to appreciate how “flexible plants are in response to the environment, especially how light influences the gene expression from transcription to post-translational modification.” She earned her Ph.D. in biology from Duke in July. Her next step is postdoctoral research in Liza Pon’s lab at Columbia University.

Yang’s long-term goal is “to be an independent researcher studying communication between organelles and the nucleus, specifically how cells distinguish the quality of organelles and allocate them appropriately during the cell cycle.”

Nathalie Gerassimov Nathalie Gerassimov is a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.