The longstanding goal of our research is to elucidate the function of RNA molecules in gene expression and genome maintenance. Our recent emphasis is on piRNAs—fascinating small RNA species that defend genome against invasive nucleic acid, and on germ granules—mysterious RNA-rich organelles that are required for germ cell maintenance.  By combining computational approaches and wet lab experiments, we are pursuing several fundamental questions:

(1) How are piRNAs made? And what are their functions? piRNA genes constitute the largest gene family in nematodes. Their biogenesis is precisely regulated. And their functions are diverse. We are developing cell-free systems and biochemical assays to study piRNA maturation. We are interested in understanding how piRNAs silence transposons and regulate cellular processes.

(2) How are germ granules assembled, maintained and transmitted to offspring? piRNAs reside in peri-nuclear structures termed germ granules. Germ granules are membraneless condensates formed through liquid-liquid phase transition. We are taking advantage of the state-of-the-art genomics, imaging and mass spectrometry approaches to investigate the composition and function of germ granules.

(3) Venture into non-model organisms. Evolution often offers the best clue as to how biological systems work. Fueled by next-generation sequencing and CRISPR/CAS genome-editing tools, we set out to characterize small RNA pathways in non-model organisms. We hope to identify conserved and unique features—e.g., proteins, mechanisms, or functions—of small RNA pathways in closely related species. Comparative studies will greatly advance our understanding of non-coding RNA function.

Grant support

We’d like to thank our funders who have made our research possible: