Exploring Life's Secrets in Spliceosome

ByYe Shan April 29, 2024

Exploring Life's Secrets in Spliceosome

Wan Ruixue is a researcher and a supervisor of Ph.D. students with the School of Life Sciences at Westlake University, in East China's Zhejiang Province. She has made important contributions to determining the atomic structure of the intact spliceosome, and to revealing the molecular mechanism of pre-mRNA splicing.

A rising star in the academic community of structural biology, Wan was the first-author or co-author of more than 10 papers published in accredited journals, such as Science and Cell magazines. Born in 1990, she joined the laboratory of renowned biologist and academic Shi Yigong in 2013, and received her Ph.D. from Tsinghua University in 2018. 

In October 2023, Wan was a delegate from Zhejiang Province to the 13th National Women's Congress, held in Beijing. During a group discussion with the delegation from Zhejiang, Wan reviewed the past 10 years of her hard work, from completing her doctoral studies to conducting scientific research in structural biology. "The 13th National Women's Congress is a meeting of great importance for implementing the guiding principles of the 20th CPC National Congress," Wan said. "It was written in the report to the 20th CPC National Congress that 'we must regard science and technology as our primary productive force' and ‘we will fully implement the strategy for invigorating China through science and education.' In recent years, the Party and our country have attached great importance to scientific and technological innovation and have continuously increased investments to support originally developed, basic scientific research. I, as a first-line researcher in the field of life sciences, feel very lucky to be working in the new era." 

Exploring Life's Secrets in Spliceosome

'Rival' of Herself 

Wan enjoys conducting various experiments in a lab, as she tries to unveil the secrets of life sciences. She once compared conducting scientific research to running a marathon. "One needs not only patience, but also enthusiasm. Running toward the final goal, your rival is indeed yourself." Adds Wan: "There is no short cut in basic research." Therefore, she says she must run every step firmly; and, if she keeps running, she will embrace a promising future. 

Before she joined professor Shi's lab team, with the School of Medicine under Tsinghua University, Wan graduated from Sun Yat-sen University, with a bachelor's degree in marine life resources and environment. She emailed Shi twice to express her sincere desire to work in his lab. She was elated when she received Shi's approval. During her second year of doctoral studies, Wan was encouraged by Shi to adopt the technique of cryo-electron microscopy (known as cryo-EM) in the research of the three-dimensional structure of the intact spliceosome and its molecular mechanism. 

Biomacromolecules in cells often form protein machineries or complexes to function. The spliceosome is a prime example: To execute pre-mRNA splicing, hundreds of spliceosomal components must recognize the substrates, undergo stepwise assembly and activation, catalyze the reactions, and then release the products. Wan has contributed to the elucidation of the molecular mechanism of RNA splicing, by uncovering the atomic structures of the spliceosome. Her research has greatly advanced understanding of the fundamental biological process for all eukaryotes. 

"It sounds difficult to understand. In fact, the focus of my research is closely related to our daily lives. The application value of my research is to develop therapeutics for curing certain diseases," Wan explains. Currently, she and her team mainly conduct research on the working mechanism of cellular macromolecular machines, especially in terms of structural biology, biochemistry and biophysics. The team primarily focuses on the molecular mechanism of U12-type splicing, the structural basis of alternative splicing and RNA processing, and the structure and mechanism of other important molecular complexes. 

Exploring Life's Secrets in Spliceosome

Embarking on a Bright Journey

As a young woman researcher, Wan gives full play to her diligent thought process, and earnest and indomitable work attitude. Since she was a student, she has been inspired by older generations of Chinese women scientists, who have contributed their wisdom and strength to advancing the country's development in science and technology. 

In 2018, Wan received a top prize, the Science and SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists, after her prize-winning essay was published online by the journal, Science, on November 23. The award, selected annually to honor four of the world's best young researchers in their fields, is presented by SciLifeLab, Sweden's national center for molecular biosciences. The award is cosponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and four international universities. In 2022, Wan received the 17th China Youth Science and Technology Award. 

Wan believes the realization of the Chinese Dream requires people — from generation to generation — to continue forging ahead, with resolve and tenacity. As a researcher, and as a supervisor of Ph.D. students, Wan hopes to encourage young people to participate in the development of scientific and technological innovation. "Our country needs more people to work in the sciences. We need to promote scientific workers' achievements, and we also need to provide science education more widely to the youth." Wan says she often writes articles and participates in activities related to science education for the public. 

After she returned to Hangzhou (capital of Zhejiang Province) from Beijing, following the 13th National Women's Congress, she shared the congress' spirit with her colleagues, and she called on them to work together to help the younger generation pursue their dreams in the sciences. 

"One of my students has told me she wishes to become a scientist, like me. Hearing her words, my heart was filled with a sense of happiness. Giving a positive influence on my students, especially young women, is just as significant as making achievements in my research," Wan says.


Photos from Interviewee

(Women of China English Monthly March 2024)


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