Faculty conversations: Sheng Yang He
Sheng Yang He’s ground breaking work of studying how plants become susceptible to disease recently garnered him the honor of being one of the nation’s most innovative researchers.
He, a professor at the Plant Research Laboratory in the College of Natural Science, was named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Investigator along with 14 other researchers nationwide, as part of a $75 million new plant science initiative. He's salary, benefits and research expenses for the next five years or longer will be covered.
The application process to become a HHMI-GBMF Investigator is quite unique, He said.
"Traditionally, you apply for a grant write a proposal and they give you a certain amount of money. This particular competition is very different," he said. "They want to find the 'best' scientist ever — so it's a people-driven funding.
"Because of that, they give you freedom to explore. They trust these scientists with use of the funding to the best that they can and to be very creative. I think that’s the thing, they want the investigator to break new ground and discover new things."
He discovered that one of the central mechanisms that bacteria use to cause disease is by using a needle-like syringe to inject proteins into plant cells, in the same way that bacteria infect human cells.
"This process is very important because if you knock out that syringe, the bacteria will not cause disease,” He said. "We want to study how this works, how these proteins that are injected into the plant or human cell function to modulate disease process. One of the things we found out is that most of these proteins actually suppress immune response."
For example, He discovered that bacteria don’t just passively enter plants through the stomata, or pores, of the plant, as previously thought. Plants actually have an immune response in which they are somehow able to recognize that bacteria are near and close. But if enough bacteria are present, they can produce toxins that prevent the stomata from closing and are able to enter in that way.
"We want to find out how they do it, because that’s the only way you will be able to stop it," He said.