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Yarui Diao, Ph.D Awarded 2020 NIH/NHGRI Genomic Innovator Award


Yarui Diao, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Cell Biology and Orthopaedic Surgery, has received 2020 NHGRI Genomic Innovator Awards, totaling 2.38M research funding in five years, to support his study focused on the analysis of the molecular composition associated with non-coding DNA and RNA sequences in the genome. Less than 2% of the human genome sequences are protein-coding genes, while it has been shown that more than 98% of the non-coding genome sequences play critical regulatory roles in development and disease. For instance, at least 80% non-coding human genome regions are associated with certain chromatin biochemical modifications; and 70% of non-coding genome can be transcribed into RNAs at various developmental stages. With millions of cis-regulatory elements and hundreds of thousands of non-coding RNAs being annotated in the human genome, one of the most striking findings is that these putative non-coding regulatory sequences harbor a large number of sequence variants associated with diverse human traits and diseases, leading to the hypothesis that genetic lesions in the non-coding regulatory elements can substantially contribute to complex human diseases. Despite the recent technological breakthroughs enabling editing genome and epigenome at will and in high-throughput, we still know little about the detailed molecular machinery controlling the function and activity of non-coding regulatory DNA and RNA in physiology and pathology. This is a critical knowledge gap, as the non-coding regulatory genomic regions can be utilized to fine-tuning gene expression program, and the effectors acting on these non-coding elements can serve as the powerful molecular “handles” to engineering the activity of non-coding sequences for desired cellular response and therapeutics. Supported by this Genomic Innovator Award, totaling $2.38M research funding for 5 years, the Diao lab will take advantage of the multi-omics CRISRP-BioID approaches that they recently developed, coupled with high-throughput multiplexed functional perturbation assays, to define the regulome centered on enhancer and ncRNAs. In doing so, they hope to identify the effector molecules that can be employed to create, modify, and disrupt the gene regulatory activity of non-coding regulatory DNA/RNA for desired cellular response, and for gene-expression based therapeutics. 

The National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of the National Institutes of Health, is awarding Genomic Innovator Awards to nine institutions to support the research of 12 early-career scientists in the field of genomics. The awards will total up to $27 million over five years, pending the availability of funds.

The Genomic Innovator Awards was developed to support innovative work by genomics investigators who are early in their careers and part of consortia or other team-science efforts. Six talented researchers were funded in the first cohort of the program in 2019. In its second year, NHGRI is awarding 12 researchers, each leading inspiring work in various areas genomics, including CRISPR technologies, genomic medicine, and genomic studies in historically marginalized populations.

"The awards reflect a cadre of emerging genomics researchers who are helping to carry the field forward," said NHGRI Director Eric Green, M.D., Ph.D. "These recipients are engaged in the highest level of research, and I am sure that their work will contribute to understanding human biology and raising the standard of health for all."

Unlike more traditional grants, which fund defined research projects, the Genomic Innovator Award provides the researcher with the flexibility to pursue innovative research directions in a nimble fashion within a broad scientific area. Past awardees have recognized how the award has transformed their careers.

"For many post-PhD researchers, the road to becoming an independent investigator can be a long and arduous one," said Gurumurthy Channabasavaiah, Ph.D., core facility director at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, and 2019 award recipient. "A recognition such as the Genomic Innovator Award can propel a person's career in ways that otherwise may be extremely difficult in academia."

Some awardees have a deep appreciation for the unique value of the Genomic Innovator Award, especially for the research freedom it provides.

Others remarked on how flexible support has enabled greater acceptance and inclusivity. 

“As a Filipino American in academia, I had often felt like all the odds were against me in a career in science despite my productivity, but this award has provided me, quite literally, the resources to pursue my passion and has made it possible for me to help trainees in their work,” said Eric Gamazon, Ph.D., a researcher at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. “For people who may want to apply for the award, my advice is to see your work as part of a community of mentors, trainees, and collaborators who continually amplify its impact and provide a source of inspiration.”