NIU biologist wins $911,000 NSF grant for early career research

[USA] The National Science Foundation has awarded a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) grant of $911,000 over five years to NIU biological sciences professor Yanbin Yin.

The funding will support Yin’s bioinformatics research, which seeks to gain a better understanding of an important class of enzymes in plants and microbes that results in the production and breakdown of carbohydrates.

The research could contribute to the making of lower-cost biofuels, help prevent crop loss due to microbial pathogens and illuminate how algae evolved to land plants. It could also benefit human health research. Dietary carbohydrates feed trillions of bacteria within the human gut and have a profound impact on the population dynamics of these bacteria.

The CAREER grant is NSF’s highest honor in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research.

Professors Scott Grayburn and Jon Miller examine a culture of filamentous algae.

“NSF CAREER awards are extremely competitive, and granted to only the most highly accomplished young scientists nationwide,” said Barrie Bode, chair of NIU’s Department of Biological Sciences. “Yanbin certainly stands out among his peers, in terms of the quality and quantity of research he has produced since coming to NIU. We are extremely proud of this fitting recognition at the national level.”

Yin specializes in bioinformatics, a blending of biology and computer science for analysis of highly complex biological data. He specifically seeks to shed light on enzymes known as carbohydrate active enzymes, or CAZymes.

This large class of enzymes is responsible for the synthesis, degradation, modification and recognition of all carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates found in plant cell walls are the most abundant, and renewable, organic material on Earth. Microbes use CAZymes to break down plant carbohydrates into simple sugars, which can be further converted into biofuels and other biomaterials.

Yin’s research team will develop computer tools to better identify CAZymes from newly sequenced microbial genomes, sequence the genome of a green alga (Zygnma circumcarinatum) and peer into the evolutionary processes within early plants.

“Algae live in the water,” said Yin, a resident of Sycamore. “In order to move to lands, early algae-like plants had to modify their carbohydrate chemistry to meet the environmental change. Our work will provide a better understanding of how that evolutionary process occurred.”

Yin will collaborate with Scott Grayburn, director of biology’s Molecular Core Lab, on the algal genome sequencing work. At least two graduate and two undergraduate students at NIU will be involved in each year of the research, with an emphasis on recruitment of under-represented minority students. A portion of the NSF funding will be used to hire one postdoctoral associate for the first two years of Yin’s study.

Additionally, Yin is collaborating with biology professor Jon Miller to recruit pre-service high school teachers from NIU’s educator licensure program. The goal is to provide those students with practical, hands-on genomics and bioinformatics skills that they can bring to their future classrooms.

In addition to the NSF grant, Yin recently received a $373,000 R15 grant over three years from the National Institutes of Health. That award funds development of new computational tools for the analysis of the role of microbial orphan genes in the development of infectious diseases.


Photo: Professor Yanbin Yin and postdoctoral research associate Elisabeth Fitzek prepare algal DNA samples.

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