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Wyss Institute Faculty member Peng Yin receives NIH Director’s Pioneer Award

High-risk, high-rewards program recognizes potential of DNA nanotechnology

Wyss Institute Faculty member Peng Yin receives NIH Director’s Pioneer Award
Wyss Core Faculty member Peng Yin received NIH director’s Pioneer Award for developing technology that can identify single proteins within cells’ vast proteomes using high-throughput super-resolution imaging. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

(BOSTON)  ­— Wyss Institute Core Faculty member Peng Yin was selected as one of this year’s ten awardees of the five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Pioneer Award to develop technology that can identify single proteins within cells’ vast proteome using a low-cost, high-throughput, super-resolution imaging approach.

Established in 2004 as part of the NIH Common Fund, which provides funds for high-risk/high-reward research, the NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards supports scientists with outstanding records of creativity in pursuing highly innovative research approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

Peng Yin, Ph.D., is also a co-leader of the Wyss Institute’s Molecular Robotics Initiative and Professor in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. His research focuses on DNA and RNA – the molecules known to encode biological information and mediate inheritance from one generation to the next – as a synthetic material to construct, manipulate and visualize biomolecular structures at the nanoscale.

His group is working to harness these capabilities to detect the presence, position, and interactions of molecules as they occur in vitro and in vivo in living cells and tissues. He also has applied DNA nanotechnology to fabricate inorganic nanoparticles of defined shapes with programmable functions.

“The Wyss Institute is tremendously excited for Peng Yin who is highly deserving of this prestigious award, which reflects his accomplishments as one of the preeminent researchers in the field of DNA nanotechnology and systems biology,” said Don Ingber, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Wyss Institute. “I am confident that the approaches resulting from his proposal will have far-reaching impact on medical diagnostics and potentially therapeutic areas as well, in addition to advancing our understanding of many molecular and cellular processes.”

The development and improvement of next-generation sequencing methods has enabled researchers to analyze the DNA and RNA in cells and tissues with unprecedented sensitivity and on a massively parallel scale. However, the same level of sensitivity and throughput has not yet been achieved for the proteome, the full complement of proteins resulting from the specific gene-expression programs that determine their identities and functions. As protein levels and activities are intricately regulated via both changes in gene expression and additional modifications that are made to their structures, being able to take a high-resolution snapshot of the cell-wide proteome could ultimately allow better predictions of the states cells are in, provide new insights into their inner molecular workings, and reveal more accurate biomarkers and useful therapeutic targets for diseases.

“I am honored to have been selected for this prestigious award,” said Yin. “With its support, we will leverage our DNA-PAINT super-resolution imaging technology to engineer a ‘single-molecule fingerprinting’ method that can be applied with high-throughput to cells’ proteomes. Our work embodies the spirit of the NIH’s commitment to high-risk, high-reward research and ultimately could advance many research areas.”

By taking a DNA nanotechnology-based approach, the DNA-PAINT method is able to visualize single molecules with nano-scale resolution. In a series of landmark studies, Yin and his co-workers have engineered into the DNA-PAINT technology the capabilities to carry out multiplexed analyses of many molecules, quantify actual numbers of proteins at a specific location, and visualize molecular scale features packed in dense clusters. Yin’s team will harness all of these features to develop a method that is able to fingerprint single proteins in cells, complementing next-generation DNA and RNA sequencing to provide a more complete picture of cell identities and functions.


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