Shenzhen Economic Daily: SUSTech’s Associate Professor Wei Zhiyi Explores the Wonders of Life


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Usually, it takes years or more than a decade for scientists to get their articles published in the scientific journal Nature. However, Associate Professor Zhiyi Wei and his team managed to publish a Nature letter entitled “Crystal Structure of the RNA-Guided Immune Surveillance Cascade Complex in Escherichia coli” in a matter of one month. When being asked about how he did it, he smiled, “It was because of competition. We don’t want to be left behide by our international competitors!”

Professor Wei’s extraordinary journey started at 2013 when he left Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and joined SUSTech. It was on our gorgeous natural campus that he met his previous colleague, Dr. Yanli Wang, who was working at the Institute of Biophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Dr. Wang told him that she was studying a RNA-Guided Immune Surveillance Complex, named Cascade, in Escherichia coli, but having difficulties in sovling its high resolution structure. Acknowledging the extremely high academic impact of her research, Dr. Wei would like to provide some supports. However, the collaboration was restrainted by the lack of research equipment and staff at SUSTech, whose campus was opened less than a year before.

During the Spring Festival in 2014, Dr. Wei received a call from Dr. Wang. She talked about a major breakthrough in her research and Dr. Wei’s expertise in structural biology would be necessary for solving the structure. So, Dr. Wei formly joined the collaborative project. He did all he could to overcome the difficulties: borrowing the university’s teaching laboratories and doing all required works in the project by himself.

In early April, there was another twist in the story. When attending a conference in Germany, Dr. Wang learned that two international teams were doing the same work and were very close to publishing their results. Drs. Wang and Wei’s team accelerated their steps. They worked day and night without too much sleeping. With this hard work and dedication, the team were able to finally solve the molecular structure of Cascade complex in only one week.

Once the structure was solved, Dr. Wei took the earliest flight from Shenzhen to Beijing to discuss the paper writing with Dr. Wang. However, Due to teaching obligations, Dr. Wei could only stay for a few days and wrapping up most of the work via phone calls, text messages, and emails. By overcoming the tight schedule, the paper was finished in a few weeks. When submitting the article to Nature, they asked the editors to speedup the whole process because of tight compitition. Fortunately, Drs. Wei and Wang’s article was timely published online in Nature at almost the same time as their competitor’s papers came out in Science, a good result for all parties involved. Science then commented all three articles and praised their groundbreaking work in biology. More importantly, it was the first article that SUSTech published in Nature.

In E. coli, the CRISPR/CAS immune system again bacteriophage relies on the formation of a protein-RNA complex, called Cascade. Previously, the assembly of Cascade and its molecular mechanisms for recognition of viral DNA were unclear due to the lack of high-resolution structural information. Dr. Zhiyi Wei and Dr. Yanli Wang used X-ray crystallography to successfully determine the high-resolution crystal structure of Cascade, by which they demonstrate the delicate architechture of Cascade with a seahorse-like shape. Their observations not only illustrate that the Cascade complex assembled as a molecular machine with efficient immunological functions through the interaction of a large number of protein-protein and protein-RNA interactions, but also provide key insights for the entire RNA research field. Additionally, as a less understood CRISPR/CAS system, the Cascade structure provide an important reference for the further application of CRISPR gene-editing technology.

Looking back on the experience, Dr. Zhiyi Wei said: “I’ve never experienced any pressure like that. I barely ate and slept, everything around me felt like nothing. I didn’t have time to care about anything except for the research project. I would like to thank my wife, who is also working at Department of Biology, SUSTech. She understood the importance of my research and fully supported me every step of the way. I remember spending all the time on my laptop. My wife took a photo of me working in the bathroom, and I didn’t even notice. I’m glad she took the photo – it was not only a funny picture but also a way to document an important moment of my life.”

Dr. Wei’s research has had a great academic impact. However, unlike many other research projects at SUSTech, the Cascade project belongs to basic research, which is difficult to commercialize in the near future. Their research is more focused on life’s secret. Dr. Wei described his research to be a little process of exploring the wonders of life and decoding the enigma of the world. He compares the process to a “glamorous adventure” with ever-changing joy and fun.

“I have always asked my students to stay curious about life itself, which attracts ones working in the laboratory every single day and motivates them to explore the important questions in life sciences. We study biological molecules in microscopic level, which may not sound very interesting to many people. I believe that understanding the basic working mechanisms of molecules in life is the foundation for uncovering the beautiful essence of nature. Compared with five years ago, the research environment of SUSTech and Shenzhen rightnow is much better. But I hope that Shenzhen would invest more for basic research, which in my opinion is at least equally important as the research works for application.” Dr. Zhiyi Wei said.

Dr. Wei has been concentrating on biology research since his undergraduate years. Rightnow, his research focus on discovering the secrets of neuronal growth. Although the growing biomedical industry in Shenzhen attracts a lot of attentions from funding agencies and research institute, Dr. Wei still spend most of his research time on basic science. Maybe in the eyes of Dr. Wei, the molecular model of the Cascade complex looks like a flower that is beautiful but only blossoms in front of the right audience.

With the contribution of researchers like Wei Zhiyi, SUSTech has made numerous achievements in research. By the end of 2017, SUSTech had undertaken 717 scientific projects on municipal, provincial and national levels, receiving a fund of nearly 1.2 billion Chinese Yuan (0.17 billion USD). From 2012 to 2017, SUSTech published 3,006 academic papers and 33 monographs, and more than a dozen of them ended up in Nature and Science journals. The university also successfully obtained over 40 authorized patents. This year, SUSTech ranks at China’s No.27 on the Nature Index’s Weighted Fractional Count List. Two years ago, it was No.62 on the Nature Index’s 2016 Rising Stars List and made the world’s third-biggest gain in performance. This year, Essential Science Indicators (ESI) ranking saw SUSTech make its debut. Both its chemistry and material science majors were ranked within the top 1% of such majors in the world.