Yanran Li receives NIH New Innovator Award

Author: Holly Ober
October 6, 2020

Yanran Li, an assistant professor of chemical and environmental engineering, has received a New Innovator Award from the National Institutes of Health’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program for a project to discover plant natural products of potential medicinal value and their biosynthesis through reprograming the plant innate immunity. 

Yanran Li

Plant natural products play an important role in drug development, with more than 10% of essential medicines originating from flowering plants, but synthetic potential has been largely underestimated with the majority of plant natural products left unexplored. One reason for this is that it is very hard to get plants to produce enough of these compounds under normal circumstances for study and drug development. Many approaches have been developed in the past 20 years to more efficiently discover new natural products from microbial organisms, but not from plants. 

Li’s research seeks to engineer and redirect plant immune signaling to activate secondary metabolic pathways that are silent under normal conditions, in order to more efficiently discover novel plant natural products. 

“In addition to the discovery of novel plant natural products not synthesized under normal conditions, the biosynthesis, and the native functions, we will also gain insights into how the highly complex plant signaling pathways — immune, perception, growth factor, plant hormone, etc. — are correlated and regulated in this project,” Li said. 

Li’s project is one of the 50 High-Risk, High-Reward awards given by NIH in 2020 to exceptionally creative early career scientists proposing innovative, high-impact projects. 

“I was first introduced to plant immune receptors during a lunch discussion with Wenbo Ma from plant pathology back in 2016 when I first joined UCR. We came up with the idea to reconstruct and engineer plant immune complexes in yeast,” Li said. “A generous collaborative seed grant from UCR’s Office of Research and Economic Development in 2018 helped me to extend the idea toward discovery of plant natural products in this successful proposal.”

The research will be supported under NIH grant number DP2 AT011445-01. Read more about these awards and the recipients on the NIH website.

Thumbnail image: Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast cells. (Wikimedia commons)