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Where Collaborations Are King

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  • Title: Assistant Professor, University of Toronto
  • Education: PhD, University of California, Berkeley, 2000
  • Recommended by: Mark Gerstein

Zhaolei Zhang remembers very clearly what set him on his course to becoming a scientist. He grew up in China in the early 1970s, a time when the country was just "opening up to the rest of the world," he recalls. At the time, being involved in science was suddenly very exciting and honorable, he recalls. "Nobel prize winners were national heroes," he says. He and many of his friends wound up pursuing scientific degrees.

After majoring in biophysics, Zhang packed his bags and set out for California, where he earned his PhD with Sung-Hou Kim while studying protein crystallography and structural biology. "I thought it was a really cool idea to use chemistry to study proteins," he says. His research with Kim involved determining the structure and functional mechanism of complexes of membrane proteins that play a role in cell respiration. He was particularly involved in a project to establish the structure of a specific cytochrome complex.

In 2001 he packed up and headed to Yale University, where he completed a postdoc with Mark Gerstein and got his introduction to yeast genetics. "I really enjoyed my time in Mark's lab," Zhang says. The timing couldn't have been better: "It was at the time the genome age started to emerge." During the three years he spent in Gerstein's lab, Zhang learned computational techniques and focused on pseudogene evolution as well as genome annotation.

Today, Zhang has his own lab at the University of Toronto, where the spotlight is on regulatory elements as well as yeast genetics and finding computational ways to understand the organism better. Zhang says his is a "dry" lab, but that he has made a point of establishing collaborations with scientists in experimental labs to put his computational work to the test. He and his team are investigating the genomic and proteomic attributes of yeast, with a specific eye on evolution, transcription, noncoding RNAs, and protein-protein interactions. The broad goal is to be able to pinpoint function of specific genes and proteins to understand not only what they do, but also how they work together. Zhang, who began at Toronto in the fall of 2004, has appointments in both the medical research and in the medical genetics and microbiology departments.

Publications of note

Earlier this year in the Genome Research journal, Zhang and his colleagues published a paper called "The extensive and condition-dependent nature of epistasis among whole-genome duplicates in yeast." He says that the study, which included a number of authors from a range of collaborating labs, involved looking "at how duplicated genes in yeast can rescue each other in stress and other conditions." One method of analysis in particular used protein interaction data to determine the functional overlap between epistatic and non-epistatic genes.

And the Nobel goes to …

Were he to be honored with a Nobel one day, Zhang says he hopes it would be for "finding a cure for AIDS." HIV itself is a fairly small organism, he notes, and with the amount of money being poured into AIDS research from a variety of different funding organizations, he believes that this should be a tractable problem. "I think it's going to happen in the next 10 or 20 years," he says.

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