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Beyond the Virus

Posted Jul. 9, 2009

Yiming Bao discovers more than just research niche at Noble Research Institute
Yiming Bao, Ph.D.
Yiming Bao, Ph.D.

"At the Noble Research Institute, I was involved in a wide variety of research that established a strong foundation for my career"

Yiming Bao, Ph.D.,
researcher with the NCBI Viral Genome Project

If you want to know about viruses, just ask Yiming Bao. He's dedicated almost two decades to the study of one of nature's most feared and most misunderstood organisms.

Bao, who received his Ph.D. from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, currently serves as a staff scientist at the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) which is part of the National Institutes of Health. He's a significant contributor to the NCBI resources for piecing together genetic material that make up the genome of a virus (a genome represents all the genetic material in a particular virus). In 1994, however, Bao was just beginning to find his research niche when he accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in Principal Investigator Rick Nelson's laboratory at the Noble Research Institute. Bao said his decision to come to southern Oklahoma was simple. "The Noble Research Institute has one of the best virology departments in the country," Bao said. "There was so much to learn and study. The opportunities here were and continue to be tremendous."

Beyond the scientific reputation, the Hangzhou, China native's initial impression was shaped by a small, but important service. For international researchers, working in the United States requires a visa. Navigating the tricky waters of securing the correct type of visa is often an exhausting and frustrating process. "At the time, there were several types of work visas available," Bao said. "The Noble Research Institute's Human Resources Department made the process extremely easy, providing me direction and seeing me through the entire process. They were thorough and helpful. You do not see that level of service everywhere."

The initial assistance was a small part of the overall Noble Research Institute experience - one that helped shape Bao's career and life. Early on, Bao worked with Nelson in characterizing the genesis of particular symptoms of tobacco mosaic virus. "He was a meticulous and conscientious researcher," Nelson said. "He's extremely bright, and he quickly became a strong member of our laboratory. He produced or co-produced multiple publications in some of the best scientific journals dedicated to virological and plant biological research from his work here."

Bao also became the go-to guy for cellular biology. He laid the groundwork for the Noble Research Institute's current cellular imaging facility and played an instrumental role in purchasing the institution's first confocal microscope. As part of his cell biology/imaging work, Bao introduced the Noble Research Institute to the powerful research tool of green fluorescent protein (GFP), a useful, "labeling" protein derived from jellyfish.

In the past decade, GFP has emerged as a guiding light for biochemists, cell biologists and physiologists in both medical and agricultural research. The gene encoding GFP is fused with another gene under study. The luminescent green color produced by GFP when exposed to a black light or other ultraviolet light source serves to mark the position of its fusion partner. By highlighting the location of the protein being studied and the various structures it associates within living cells, researchers better understand this protein in a more realistic setting. For example, GFP is used to study the formation and location of growing cancer tumors in animal tissue and the movement of pathogenic bacteria through plant cells by linking it with genes suspected to be involved with tumor formation or pathogen movement. "One of the experiences that led me to where I am today is when we began using GFP to label proteins," Bao said. "The combination of GFP and confocal microscopy enables us to better understand many aspects of viruses."

Beyond the laboratory, Bao found southern Oklahoma's surrounding landscape offered endless outdoor opportunities. "When I was there, I loved to fish," he said. "The Noble Research Institute has several ponds spread across the 12,000 acres of research and demonstration land they operate. The employees were able to use them for recreation. It was amazing just getting out there and enjoying nature."

After his fellowship concluded, Bao earned a permanent position as a senior research associate in the Foundation's other virology laboratory, under the leadership of Marilyn Roossinck, Ph.D. During this time, Bao dug deeper into the world of virus research.

Looking back at his Noble Research Institute tenure, Bao valued the vast range of experiences he was afforded. "Most young scientists beginning their careers have limited opportunity to conduct their own research, or they are given a very narrow scope under which they do their research," Bao said. "At the Noble Research Institute, I was involved in a wide variety of research that established a strong foundation for my career."

Additionally, Bao's tenure at the Noble Research Institute afforded him the opportunity to attend networking conferences, as well as sharpen his presentation skills, both of which have paid dividends throughout his career.

"My current job requires me to interact with researchers and give presentations at conferences and workshops worldwide," he said. "One of the things I appreciated most about the Noble Research Institute was the weekly divisional seminars which helped us learn how to effectively communicate our findings. This greatly improved the scientific presentation skills that I need now."

Bao left the Noble Research Institute in 2001 to work with the NCBI Viral Genome Project in Maryland. The project is a collection of completed genome sequences of viruses and viroids, aiming to provide molecular standards for viral genomic research.

In essence, Bao identifies completed genome sequences of all viruses, selects one for each virus as a reference sequence, curates them and then puts them into a publicly accessible database.

Scientists studying a particular virus can use the reference sequences instead of sacrificing valuable time - measured in days or weeks - to sort through thousands of partially complete sequences that often do not adequately represent the consensus sequence for the virus. These sequences enable them to better understand the characteristics and functionality of their particular virus.

Researchers studying the influenza virus, for example, often use the Viral Genome Project database to assist in their work to trace and defend against the ever-evolving "flu bug." "This keeps the scientists in my area very busy because influenza mutates so often," Bao said. To date, the Viral Genome Project has produced more than 3,340 reference sequences for 2,270 different virus species.

"I'm proud of the work I'm doing," Bao said. "I know I wouldn't be here if it had not been for the opportunities, experiences and mentorship provided to me by the Noble Research Institute."

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