Dr. Xiuren Zhang, a biochemist and geneticist with Texas A&M AgriLife Research in College Station, Texas, has been awarded almost $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) CAREER program to further his studies on RNA silencing and plant stem cells.
The NSF CAREER award is intended to honor and support junior staff members that have shown outstanding promise in their field, and to help ensure that their work is allowed to continue. The award will extend over five years.
Zhang’s research was recently featured in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, in an article that detailed his team’s discovery of bidirectional processing of microRNAs in plants. These small RNAs turn off gene expression, but they are processed from a specific group of progenitor RNAs, also known as primary RNAs that contain loop structures.
The team studied the common lab plant Arabidopsis and rice, and found that primary microRNA can be processed in either direction. However, the processing from only one direction leads to forming a mature microRNA species, while going in the other direction causes the process to abort and degrade.
Zhang’s work was related to Argonaute genes, so named because their mutants resemble the shellfish known as an argonaut. Argonaute proteins are guided by small RNAs to shut down gene activities. His team discovered that Arabidopsis Argonaute 10, different from other Argonaute proteins, specifically locks a group of tiny microRNAs, and prevents their “turn-off” activities to promote plant stem cell development.
With this award, Zhang’s team will continue to focus their work on the Argonaute 10, controlling stem cells of plants, which ultimately could lead to the ability to regulate the production of leaves, seeds and fruit. The CAREER grant will also include an educational component aimed at creating and sustaining interest in undergraduate students — especially minorities and women — in order to encourage them to continue in research at the graduate level, Zhang explained in the press release.
Dr. Xiuren Zhang joined Texas A&M in 2008 and is currently an assistant professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University’s Institute Plant Genomics and Biotechnology. He pursued his Master’s degree at Auburn University, followed by his doctoral training at Cornell University and a postdoc at Rockefeller University.
Zhang is actually not the first Texas A&M researcher who has received an NSF’s CAREER award. Dr. Radu Stoleru, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, was also awarded a CAREER award back in April for his ongoing research into the pioneering field of flow-based cyber-physical systems. His project, “Foundations for Flow-based Cyber-Physical Systems,” will be ongoing until the year 2018.