FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Marshall faculty member’s article published in PNAS
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – An article written by Dr. Hongwei Yu, associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology in the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University, was published April 30 in an early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), one of the world’s most-cited multidisciplinary scientific serials.
PNAS publishes cutting-edge research reports, commentaries, reviews, perspectives, colloquium papers and actions of the Academy.
“All those familiar with scientific literature are aware of the significance of such recognition,” Dr. Howard Aulick, vice president for research at Marshall, said. “Four other PNAS papers of equal stature have involved MU investigators before, but none originated here or was directed by an MU scientist.”
Yu’s article, entitled Regulated proteolysis controls mucoid conversion in Pseudomonas aeruginosa, describes the signal transduction pathway responsible for conversion of the non-mucoid, relatively harmless form of Pseudomonas aeruginosa – a Gram-negative, aerobic rod belonging to the bacterial family Pseudomonadaceae – to its pathogenic mucoid phenotype.
“Hongwei has discovered how a relatively benign form of common environmental bacteria becomes pathogenic,” Aulick said. “This will not only have profound health benefits, but it may also introduce major economic development with biomanufacturing.”
Yu, also an adjunct associate professor in the School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, said he has been working on this discovery, which is patent pending, since 1999 when he joined Marshall’s faculty. He previously had extensive doctoral and postdoctoral training in molecular genetics.
“We are very excited because this is truly a major milestone for my lab,” he said. “This national recognition by our peers is very important. It is equally important that this originated at Marshall.”
Yu said the mucoid morphology is due to the overproduction of a large polysaccharide, called alginate, that forms a thick, slimy “biofilm” around colonies of bacteria, protecting them from the body’s immune defense mechanisms. The result is can be a life-threatening event when this occurs in the lungs of patients with cystic fibrosis.
“Unraveling the microbial genetics controlling this process required several years of painstaking and extremely complex research involving literally hundreds of experiments,” Aulick said. “Dr. Yu, his students and collaborators identified three positive regulators of bacterial alginate biosynthesis.”
Immediately upon his arrival at Marshall, Yu began writing grants to support his research. His work has been funded by NASA, NIH, USDA, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, biotech companies and the West Virginia NASA Space Grant Consortium.
“To a very great extent, it was NASA Space Grant support that helped him gain funding from the other federal and private sources,” Aulick said. “Data collected with these resources enabled him to secure his first major NASA award. When fiscal contingences forced NASA to reduce his third-year funding by $50,000, NASA Space Grant and Marshall University stepped up to fill this potentially devastating gap. This research formed the basis for the current PNAS article.”
Aulick said this is a classic example of how EPSCoR and its affiliates enable scientists to achieve national research competitiveness.
Yu’s research resulted in three primary consequences. First are the potential health benefits derived – knowledge of the control of muciody can lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective treatment. Second, the high standards set by Yu make his laboratory a fertile training ground for undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. Last, the research described in this PNAS article led to a patent application and the development of a new biomanufacturing business for West Virginia.
“It is clear that Dr. Yu is an extremely talented and very energetic scientist,” Aulick said. “His excitement about his work and Marshall University is contagious. This PNAS article is clear evidence that he is becoming a well-recognized international scholar. Marshall University, West Virginia EPSCoR and the state of West Virginia have every right to be proud of Dr. Yu’s accomplishments and realize that recognition by the National Academy of Sciences suggests the best is yet to come.”
For more information, contact Yu at (304) 696-7356.