Yang's genome editing technology leads to Research Innovators Award

Resulting research may produce gene therapy to correct defects that cause human diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Yinong Yang, professor of plant pathology, is the 2019 recipient of the Research Innovators Award, given by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences to recognize faculty and staff who have commercialized intellectual property generated by their Penn State research.

Yang is being recognized for his innovations in the use of CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology. He will receive the award, which includes a $3,000 stipend, during the inaugural Research Innovation Dinner on April 25.

CRISPR stands for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, which are part of a bacterial immune system that scientists have discovered can be harnessed to deliver a DNA-cutting enzyme, Cas9, to a targeted region of the genome. The resulting modification can delete or replace specific DNA pieces, thereby promoting or disabling certain traits.

“Dr. Yang’s innovative research, successful patent licensing and broad impacts on genome editing and gene-edited crops make him an outstanding candidate for the 2019 Research Innovators Award,” wrote Matthew Smith, senior technology licensing officer in Penn State’s Office of Technology Management, when nominating Yang.

After establishing his laboratory at Penn State in 2006, Yang studied the molecular mechanism of plant-microbe interactions and explored the potential for adapting the bacterial CRISPR/Cas system to edit and modify plant genomes for precision breeding and crop improvement.

Yinong Yang, professor of plant pathology, is the 2019 recipient of the Research Innovators Award. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

He pioneered the successful use of CRISPR/Cas genome editing in plant systems, for which he filed an invention disclosure and a patent application in 2013. The related plasmid vectors, bioinformatics tools and molecular methods developed in Yang’s lab are used by researchers around the world.

A second invention in 2014 pushed the technology further. Using rice as an initial model, Yang’s lab developed a CRISPR/Cas-mediated multiplex genome editing strategy based on the cell’s endogenous transfer RNA (tRNA) processing system. This new technology to efficiently edit multiple genes not only holds promise for precision breeding of crops with desirable traits -- such as disease resistance or drought tolerance -- but also the potential for gene therapy to correct genetic defects that cause human diseases such as sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.

“Significantly, Yang’s innovations in this research have proven to be effective in more than three dozen plant, animal and microbial organisms,” Smith said. “These discoveries also are broadly used in agricultural, biomedical and basic biological research in many laboratories including those at Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Cambridge and University of California.”

More recently, Yang has extended the use of his gene-editing platform and strategies for crop improvement and disease management. In 2016, Yang received a Research Applications for INnovation (RAIN) grant from the College of Agricultural Sciences, which helped him to develop a gene-edited -- but transgene-free -- mushroom that resists browning, for which he sought government approval.

That same year, the gene-edited mushroom became the first CRISPR-edited crop to receive a green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, bypassing the USDA regulatory review to which transgenic GMOs typically are subjected. Popular Science magazine recognized the gene-edited mushroom among the “Best of What's New" in 2016.

Yang continues to develop and optimize the CRISPR-edited mushroom with the aim of commercializing new varieties in the future. In addition, his lab has been using CRISPR/Cas technologies to improve commercial rice cultivars for high yield and disease resistance and develop diagnostic tools for early detection of important plant diseases such as citrus greening. 

The Penn State Office of Technology Management has assisted Yang in filing for patents and marketing all three of his inventions, which have generated notable interest from large agricultural biotechnology companies as well as nimbler startups and have resulted in successful patent licensing to a major ag biotech company.

“The cutting-edge technologies that Dr. Yang has brought forth from his lab are game-changers,” said Gary Thompson, associate dean for research and graduate education for the college. “We are proud to partner with him to bring these inventions to the marketplace and are confident they will be of tremendous value to the well-being of millions worldwide.”

Yang holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from Zhejiang University (formerly Hangzhou University), a master’s degree in botany from the University of South Florida, and a doctorate in plant molecular and cellular biology from the University of Florida.

At Penn State, he advises graduate and undergraduate students and has taught courses in plant genomics, genome editing, host-pathogen interactions, plant stress biology, plant communication and growth regulation.

Last Updated April 17, 2019