Nieng Yan

Nieng Yan
Shilrley M. Tilghman Professor of Molecular Biology
Thomas Laboratory, 148

Faculty Assistant

Tammy Griffin


  • Ph.D., Molecular Biology, Princeton University
  • B.S., Department of Biological Sciences and Biotechnology, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China

Research Focus

Structural and chemical basis for membrane transport and lipid metabolism

Membrane transport is a vital physiological process that maintains cellular homeostasis, converts different energy forms, and generates and transduces signals. Transmembrane movement of chemicals can be achieved through diffusion, vesicular translocation, and protein-mediated facilitative diffusion or active transport. Based on the studies on representative channels, uniporters, and secondary active transporters, I seek to unveil the governing principles of membrane transport. The resolution revolution in cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) has propelled structural biology into a new era. My scientific goal as a structural biologist is to reveal the molecular choreography at atomic resolution, to unveil the physiological and cellular processes involving membrane transport (including cellular uptake of glucose, generation of action potential, and excitation-contraction coupling of muscles). In the past five years, my laboratory has made significant progress towards elucidating the structures of human glucose transporters (GLUTs) and various eukaryotic voltage-gated sodium and calcium channels (Nav and Cav). Moving forward, we aim to acquire their dynamic structures, to better comprehend how lipids modulate their activities, and to understand how disease-associated mutations cripple the normal functions of these membrane transport proteins . In addition, we plan to determine the atomic structures of recombinantly expressed and functionally well-characterized mammalian Nav and Cav channels, in order to establish a consistent structure-function relationship. Finally, based on our previously resolve structures of endogenous Ca2+ channels (Cav1.1 and RyR1), we plan to employ cryo-electron tomography to resolve the in situ ultrastructure formed by plasma membrane-anchored Cav1.1 and sarcoplasmic reticulum-anchored RyR1, in an attempt to recapitulate excitation-contraction coupling of muscles with higher spatial and temporal resolutions. I believe that these studies will ultimately lead to the deciphering of the electromechanical coupling mechanism in cells, as well as structure-based drug discovery.

Dr. Nieng Yan received her B.S. degree from the Department of Biological Sciences & Biotechnology, Tsinghua University, Beijing, China, in 2000. She then pursued her PhD in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University under the supervision of Prof. Yigong Shi between 2000 and 2004. She was the regional winner of the Young Scientist Award (North America) co-sponsored by Science/AAAS and GE Healthcare in 2005 for her thesis on the structural and mechanistic study of programmed cell death. She continued her postdoctoral training at Princeton University, focusing on the structural characterization of intramembrane proteases. In 2007, she joined the faculty of School of Medicine, Tsinghua University. Her lab has been mainly focusing on the structural and functional study of membrane transport proteins exemplified by the glucose transporters and Na+/Ca2+ channels. In 2012 and 2013, she was promoted to tenured professor and Bayer Endowed Chair Professor, respectively. Dr. Yan was an HHMI international early career scientist in 2012-2017, the recipient of the 2015 Protein Society Young Investigator Award and the 2015 Beverley & Raymond Sackler International Prize in Biophysics, and the Alexander M. Cruickshank lecturer at the GRC on membrane transport proteins in 2016.