Professor Zefeng Wang

Written by Zhongxuan (Dora) Chi

Dr. Zefeng Wang is a professor at Shanghai Institute for Nutrition and Health, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) in Shanghai, China. Since 2015, he also served as the Director of the Partner Institute for Computational Biology, which was jointly run by the CAS and the Max-Planck Society between 2005 and 2020. His current research focuses on the regulation of noncanonical translation in circular RNAs (circRNAs hereafter) and long non-coding RNAs. Dr. Wang’s group was the first team that showed that circRNAs can be translated inside cells. This changed the traditional view that circular RNAs were only non-coding RNAs.  Strikingly, they also found that the translation of many endogenous circular RNAs were driven by additional IRES-like sequences, including short elements and m6A modifications.  These findings suggested that the noncanonical translation is much more prevalent than expected, hinting that there may be an extensive amount of alternative translation with the potential to generate a hidden proteome! He said, “There are a lot of unknown things regarding this topic. Further, I think new findings will change our fundamental views on gene expression.”

Dr. Wang completed his PhD in Biological Chemistry, Johns Hopkins University, School of Medicine. He enjoyed his project very much: “I was fortunate to do my thesis research with Dr. Paul Englund, who is a great molecular biologist best known for his works the mitochondrial DNA replication and GPI anchors in parasitic trypanosomes.” In the Englund lab, he developed most of his experimental skills. Dr. Wang said, “Dr. Englund usually asked straightforward questions, and he encouraged me to focus on the details that may have affected my results.” His great training experience encouraged him to further pursue his career in life science as a post-doc at MIT in the Lab of Chris Burge.  After that, in 2007, he opened his lab in the Department of Pharmacology, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  Opening his lab was the most difficult time of his career in science. As common for early career stage faculty, it was not easy for him to win grants to support his lab. This was magnified by the financial crisis in 2008. Dr. Wang overcame this challenging situation with perseverance and advice of senior faculty and valued colleagues. At the end he was successful in raising several private funding and fellowships, as well as NIH grants, to support his new lab. “The hardest part is starting. Once you get that out of the way, you'll find the rest of journey much easier.”

“The future is bright for the RNA field as there is so much more RNA biology waiting for scientists to explore and discover!”

Dr. Wang also highlighted the importance of international scientific collaborations and free exchange of ideas. Although the pandemic largely affected everyone in different ways, Dr. Wang observed that online meetings became the main mode of scientific communication. However, according to Dr. Wang, despite the ubiquity and ease of online meetings, he feels strongly that meeting in person is more valuable for effective interactions and fostering collaborations. Before the pandemic, he organized a Sino-German RNA conference series held alternately in China and Germany as the Director of CAS-MPG partner Institute of Computational Biology. It was a wonderful time for scientists worldwide to build networks and exchange ideas. More importantly, it was a great opportunity for trainees and junior faculty to develop their social skills and obtain useful tips from the leaders of the field. Unfortunately, the pandemic halted this unique platform. Sadly, the CAS-MPG collaboration as partner institutes was also ended. Dr Wang feels strongly that such excellent meetings should be continued for scientists to actively interact and collaborate with each other. Therefore, Dr. Wang wishes that scientists can meet in person for scientific communication and have real-life interactions.

According to Dr. Wang, “In life sciences, the most important thing is to ask fundamentally important questions without worrying too much about the technology barriers.” As for his recipe for success, he thinks that “Student scientists are not limited by what they can do, but in asking what they want to do. The new technologies driving biological and biomedical research are growing exponentially.  In less than 20 years, we have witnessed the adoption of transformative technologies like RNAi, CRISPR based gene editing, protein design with artificial intelligence, etc. However, these fascinating technologies should not limit us from answering the fundamental scientific questions.” He highlighted that these technologies are powerful tools to assist us rather than misleading us to the wrong paths. Nevertheless, Dr. Wang wishes all the young scientists to discover their full potential and bright future!

Dr. Wang’s successful work was recognized by many awards including RNA Society/Scaringe Young Scientist Award, Alfred Sloan Research Fellow, Beckman Young Investigator Award to name a few.  He has also co-founded two biotech companies, CirCode BioPharm Inc., which aims to use circular RNAs as novel mRNA therapy, and Enzerna Bioscience Inc. that uses artificial RNA endonuclease for the future gene therapy material.

“It is hard to find a favorite type of RNA among so many interesting RNAs.  In my own work, I am most familiar with mRNAs and circular RNAs, which have become incredibly important for the development of the new RNA therapies.”  Furthermore, Dr. Wang thinks that simply defining RNAs as coding and non-coding is an old concept, because a single RNA molecule may play multiple roles rather than merely being ‘only’ coding or non-coding. He also thinks that “the future is bright for the RNA field as there is so much more RNA biology waiting for scientists to explore and discover!” Perhaps unsurprisingly, his favorite RNA papers center on circular RNAs.  For example, a work in 2013 showing that Alu sequences in the adjacent introns can form complementary structure to facilitate the back-splicing of circRNAs, and a later manuscript, which was the first paper to report that circular RNAs could be translated inside cells.

Dr. Wang has been an active member in the RNA Society for years. He remembers that his first RNA meeting was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  He enjoyed the beautiful dinner by the lake and the open bar during poster sessions. Especially, he was amazed by the friendly environment, where many scientists exchanged ideas and jokes over beers.  Also, he built connections with several people, who later became his good collaborators and colleagues. Because of such wonderful memory, Dr. Wang hopes to return Madison one day in the future.

For any further questions or collaborations, you can find Dr. Zefeng Wang through his e-mail: [email protected]