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Home, Sweet Home

Posted Sep. 9, 2008

Former postdoc recalls finding his second home at the Noble Research Institute
Deyu Xie, Ph.D.
Deyu Xie, Ph.D., works in his laboratory during his time as a postdoc at the Noble Research Institute.

"I told my students and any audience attending my seminars that I am from Ardmore, Okla. I consider it my second hometown."

Deyu Xie, Ph.D.,
Former Noble Research Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

Deyu Xie, Ph.D.

Deyu Xie, Ph.D., is a man who hails from two hometowns.

His first hometown - his birthplace - is a village in Chen Xi County in the Hunan Province of China. Chen Xi is a place of mountains, water buffalo, bamboo, waterfalls, rice and mountain crabs. It's a place where your laughter will echo back to you as it rolls through the mountainous terrain. It's Xie's home, a place of peace and family.

Halfway around the globe is a town that would become as meaningful to Xie as that mountain village in China.

In January 2001, Xie left China to become a postdoctoral fellow at Noble Research Institute. By August 2005, when he left the Noble Research Institute, Ardmore, Okla., had become his second hometown.

The ABCs of Xie
Xie attended Hunan Jishou University and Hunan Normal University and earned a bachelor of science degree in biology. He went on to Beijing Normal University, where he obtained his master's degree in cytogenetics, and then to the Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, where he earned his Ph.D. in plant physiology. After completing his education, he worked for three and a half years at the National University of Singapore on tropical cash tree biotechnology.

When Xie arrived in Ardmore in 2001, he didn't find mountain waterfalls or the echoing laughter of his boyhood home, but he found much to value, including research experience that established and defined his scientific career, and bonds of friendship that will last a lifetime.

After first starting in Dr. Nancy Paiva's laboratory at the Noble Research Institute, he researched the biosynthesis and metabolic engineering of condensed tannins (proanthocyanidins) under the direction of Richard Dixon, D. Phil., Senior Vice President and Plant Biology Division Director.

"Condensed tannins had been studied for nearly a century, and their biosynthetic pathway had been investigated for nearly 50 years," Xie said. "However, many questions remained unknown."

The answers Xie searched for included the nature of the precursors of condensed tannins; the metabolic relationships between anthocyanin pigment and condensed tannins; the mechanisms whereby tannins are condensed into long chains; how the molecular shapes of tannins are controlled; and how tannins can be engineered into crops to improve forage quality.

Xie quickly became immersed in his research at the Noble Research Institute, routinely working late into the night. His wife, Guoli Liu, often brought his dinner to the laboratory office. His work progressed well, and in 2002 he began to work on a project to characterize the activity of an enzyme encoded by the socalled BANYULS (BAN) gene. His research was successful, but he achieved unexpected results. He showed that BAN encodes a novel anthocyanidin reductase that made a chemical called epicatechin, a building block for the condensed tannins. When Dixon first saw Xie's results, he was skeptical and asked Xie to repeat the experiment.

"I was a little scared because the results were different from previous hypotheses and from textbook dogma," Xie said. "When we sent the results to a leading chemical expert on condensed tannins, his first response was 'Impossible.' But my data convinced him, too." This work resulted in an important paper published in Science in 2003 with Xie serving as the primary author.

Condensed tannins in forages for ruminant animals, such as cattle, can provide protection against pasture bloat by reducing methane gas production in rumen during fermentation and can improve animal nitrogen nutrition. The study of condensed tannins may also lead to new treatments for Alzheimer's, cardiovascular diseases, urinary tract infections, high blood pressure and several types of cancer.

"Dr. Xie's research added greatly to the Noble Research Institute's overall efforts to explore the potential within condensed tannins," Dixon said. "He's a skilled scientist, and we're proud of his accomplishments at the Noble Research Institute and beyond."

Outside the laboratory
Xie says his time at the Noble Research Institute was momentous both for his career and his personal life.

"It was wonderful." Xie said. "I spent my most fruitful time of academic research at the Foundation. My research accomplishments established my career in the U.S., and it was an honor to work for my mentors." He was close to many scientists and members of the Foundation staff.

"I was glad to work with laboratory manager Dr. Xianzhi He," Xie said. "He is one of the best friends in my life. He taught me how to drive. Dr. Fang Chen, one of the scientists in our laboratory, is also a close friend. I was lucky to work with such helpful laboratory technicians and other postdoctoral fellows. They are all like my brothers and sisters." On June 13, 2005, Xie and his wife were blessed with the birth of their first child. "I created his English name that is (a blending) of Noble Research Institute, Ardmore and Oklahoma," Xie said. "My son's name is Charnold Jing-Xiang Xie. Charnold means: 'A Chinese boy is born in Ardmore, Noble Research Institute, Oklahoma and the LD is part of Arnold which is an ancient German name meaning 'Brave Eagle.' He just turned three. I am so proud of him."

The next chapter
In 2005, his time at the Noble Research Institute drew to a close, and he accepted a tenure-track faculty position as an assistant professor of phytochemistry and metabolic engineering in the plant biology department at North Carolina State University (NCSU).

"After I left Noble, I told my students and any audience attending my seminars that I am from Ardmore, Okla., which is the first place I came to in the U.S., and I consider it as my second hometown," Xie said. Today, he splits his time equally between teaching and research.

"I love teaching," he said. "Teaching is one of the best and most sacred jobs in the world, but I also want to do more research so I can generate new knowledge for my students." He credits the Noble Research Institute with propelling his scientific career.

"As a young scientist, the most important thing is to introduce ourselves (by being) published in high impact, peer-reviewed journals - like Science, Nature, PNAS, Cell, Plant Cell, etc.," Xie said. "I am sure that there was nobody in the academic community in the U.S. who knew me before my work at the Noble Research Institute. How can I have convinced NCSU to hire me without my previous experiences?"

And to remember that important time, all Xie has to do is look into the face of his son, Charnold, the Chinese boy who was born in his father's second hometown.