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Sept. 14, 2021

Yuan Wang: Understanding the cause of infertility

Each year, the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development Program, or CAREER, awards grants to “early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education.” The following story is part of a series highlighting Michigan State University’s recipients of NSF’s 2021 CAREER grant awards.

This Spartan researcher is studying primordial germ cells and their role in human fertility 

For a human life to form, a sperm must fertilize an egg. Michigan State University’s Yuan Wang is working to understand how the precursors of eggs and sperm are developed in embryos and what interferes with this process to cause infertility in adults.

"In multicell organisms like humans, one fertilized egg can develop into all cell types with diverse biological functions that make up the body,” says Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Animal Science within the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “Some of these cells become eggs (in female) and sperm (in male). This fascinating process forms a cycle of life and inspires me to understand how this happens."

Wang and her team are studying primordial germ cells or PGCs. These are the precursor cells that eventually develop into eggs and sperm in the embryo. Any disruption to the formation of PGCs causes adult infertility.

With the support of a 2021 National Science Foundation Career award, Wang and her team will seek to identify the molecular regulators that empower fertilized eggs to become PGCs.

"Fifteen percent of couples worldwide experience infertility,” Wang says. “It remains elusive how PGCs diverge from other cell types during development.

"The research findings will not only reveal fundamental ‘rules’ that regulate germ cell formation to ensure the ‘continuation of life,’ but also advance understanding of the causes of human infertility,” Wang says.

Wang’s research also has applications for fertility in livestock. “Results from this project will further benefit the agricultural community by critically informing novel strategies to improve the reproductive health of livestock animals.”

Wang is combining her scientific research with educational and public outreach activities. “We will incorporate scientific advances into educational programs to foster the next-generation STEM scientists and work closely with outreach partners to engage K-12 students,” Wang says. “We will promote diversity, equality and inclusion for underrepresented groups and women to get them involved in the sciences.”

MSU’s excellence and leadership attracted Wang to come to MSU as part of the Global Impact Initiative, which helps accelerate funding solutions to recognize grand challenges.

“MSU has one of the nation’s strongest research programs in reproductive and developmental biology,” Wang says. “Although this move meant I needed to rebuild my lab in the U.S., I took this opportunity not only to reunite with my family but also to bring my passion for research of stem cells and developmental biology to MSU.”

By: Emilie Lorditch and Deon Foster