Yang Liu

Maintaining genome integrity is an essential task of all cells, and imperfect repair of the damaged genome is responsible for a myriad of human diseases, ranging from aggressive cancers to defective immune systems. As a postdoc coadvised by Taekjip Ha and Bin Wu, I broadly explore the biophysical processes involved in DNA repair in living human cells. To achieve this goal, I developed a “very fast CRISPR” system that can induce double-strand DNA breaks (DSB) with unprecedented spatiotemporal control and specificity. vfCRISPR is a powerful enabling technique, akin to the “channelrhodopsins” in optogenetics, which permits ultrafast perturbation and subsequent interrogation of many physical and chemical processes during DSB repair. For example, this rapidly inducible CRISPR system can reveal the molecular interplay at the DSB junction, addressing how the kinetics of chromatin state switch, recruitment of repair factors, and noncoding RNA species determines DNA repair pathway choices and cell fate decision. Our studies provide valuable strategies and information complementary to traditional steady-state biochemical approaches.

Questions & Answers

Why did you choose Johns Hopkins for your work?

I chose The Johns Hopkins University for my postdoc research because of its world-renowned reputation in biomedical and clinical research. TJ’s seminal research on single-molecule biophysics and bioengineering also played a crucial role in recruiting me to his lab.

What does receiving this award mean to you personally and professionally? Do you have any connection with the particular award you received?

I am incredibly humbled to receive this award named after Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich, an early biomedical pioneer in immunology and antimicrobial chemotherapy. Dr. Ehrlich dedicated his career to finding the “magic bullet” to treat microbial infections with minimal side effects. This award is a motivation for me to continue pursuing my own magic bullet for precision genome editing, with which we can safely correct human genetic diseases in the future.

What contributed to your project’s success? (Special skills, interests, opportunities, guidance, etc.)

This is one of the most challenging projects I have ever worked on. From conceptualizing the idea to its completion, there were many doubts and technical barriers during this journey. It would not be possible without the supportive mentors, hardworking team members and Johns Hopkins’ collaborative environment. In particular, TJ and Bin showed tremendous trust and patience. The project started slowly and took more than 10 months for us to know the idea works. Roger Zou, a super-talented M.D./Ph.D. student, joined forces with me and really pushed the project through.

What thoughts do you have about Young Investigators’ Day itself, as a celebration of the roles student and fellows play in research at Hopkins?

Fundamental research is fascinating, but requires much dedication. Young Investigators’ Day is a big motivation and appreciation for all graduate students and postdoc fellows who make it happen. I will be delighted to see this tradition for many years to come, and more talented young scientists will share this joy.

What has been your best/most memorable experience while at Hopkins?

In the past four years at Hopkins, I can tell of many memorable experiences, like the karaoke competition at TJ’s party and Shenandoah camping with Bin’s group members. Of course, I will not forget about many late nights spent in the lab doing experiments and collecting data. It was a unique experience and very rewarding.

What are your plans over the next year or so? Graduating, looking for faculty positions, etc?

In the next year or so, I plan to start my own lab in a major research university/institution to continue my scientific journey.

Tell me something interesting about yourself that makes you unique. Do you have any special hobbies, interests or life experiences?

I am a fan of outdoor adventures such as trail hiking, backpacking, and car camping. Exploring new parks and territories is as thrilling as doing science!