Biology assistant professor Bin He lands early-career research grant from NIH

The R35 MIRA grant will fund He's study of the intersection of evolution and stress response
Thursday, October 1, 2020

Bin He, University of Iowa

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have awarded Bin He, assistant professor of biology at the University of Iowa, an R35 MIRA for Early Stage Investigator grant.

This is a relatively new funding mechanism launched within the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at NIH. Different from traditional project-based grants, it gives the investigator great flexibility to pursue new questions within the lab’s general interest area. He’s lab plans to use the funding to focus on understanding how stress response networks evolve as species encounter new environmental conditions.

How an organism reacts to external perturbations—such as a change in temperature or source of food—to maintain its homeostasis or adapt to a new optimum, is called  "stress response." Many scientists have studied how stress responses generally work, He noted, and research in the area has been conducted for decades. His lab's research is taking a new, evolutionary look at stress response, investigating how gene regulatory networks (GRNs) for stress responses evolve, and how they may contribute to a species’ adaptation to its environment.

“Our research will add to the existing knowledge and potentially break new ground by bringing in this evolutionary perspective,” He said.

In his grant proposal, He said his lab's work will characterize the evolutionary rewiring of GRNs for major stress responses, comparing non-pathogenic yeasts and related commensal and opportunistic yeast pathogens. The researchers will then be able to determine how those changes contribute to the survival of, and the severity of harm to, the host.

This research could have two implications. First, it will shed light on the general principles for the evolution of gene regulation, which have largely been derived from studies of developmental networks. Second, by identifying how stress responses in commensal yeasts evolved, it provides novel perspectives on the fungal-host interaction, and in turn could suggest new approaches for controlling and combating yeast infections.

“Instead of trying to look for a drug, we ask: How does a sister or a brother species of the baker’s yeast—which we ingest every day—change so that it is now uniquely capable of colonizing and impacting human beings?” He said. Eventually, the goal is to understand how stress responses have evolved and to glean new insight into a potentially novel public-health approach to fungal infections.

He noted that this is his first major grant.

“Honestly, after the initial excitement of getting the news," He said of receiving the grant, "the more predominant reaction is relief that I can now focus energy on my research.”

Joshua Weiner, Associate Dean for Research in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, works with He in the Department of Biology, and said it’s fantastic to see He finding success so rapidly with NIH funding. Grants like He’s are a critical component of research success for an assistant professor, Weiner said, supporting salaries and stipends for multiple personnel, including staff and graduate students who work in labs.

“Research funding creates jobs on our campus, and additional ‘overhead’ funding from NIH helps support operational costs across our college and the university as a whole,” Weiner said. “Such federal support is the engine that powers research in CLAS, and I am thrilled by Bin’s early success in an always-competitive funding environment.”

By Katie Ann McCarver

The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa is a comprehensive college offering 73 majors in the humanities; fine, performing and literary arts; natural and mathematical sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and communication disciplines. More than 17,000 undergraduate and 1,900 graduate students study each year in the college’s 37 departments, led by professors at the forefront of teaching and research in their disciplines. The college teaches all UI undergraduates through the General Education Program, and confers about 70 percent of the UI's bachelor's degrees each academic year.