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2023 Fellow: Yinong Yang​

Yinong Yang was born in Huangyan, Zhejiang Province, China. He earned a BS in Biology from Zhejiang (formerly Hangzhou) University in 1982, an MS in Botany from University of South Florida in 1990, and a PhD in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Florida in 1994. After research as a postdoctoral fellow in the Waksman Institute of Microbiology at Rutgers University, Yang served as an assistant and then associate professor in the Department of Plant Pathology in the University of Arkansas from 1997 to 2006. Yang joined the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology, with a joint appointment in the Huck Institute of the Life Sciences at the Pennsylvania State University in 2006 as an associate professor and was promoted to professor in 2016.

Over the last 30 years, Yang, his team, and collaborators have elucidated underlying mechanisms of pathogen virulence and host immunity. He began as a PhD student, by reporting the transcription activator-like effectors (TALEs) in Xanthomonas pathogens of citrus and cotton (Yang et al., 1994 and 1996; Yang and Gabriel, 1995a, b). His novel discoveries led to our understanding of TALEs in Xanthomonas virulence and specificity via plant nuclear targeting and provided a foundation for the invention of the TALE nuclease (TALEN) technology for genome editing.

Yang moved to using rice as a model for economically important cereal crops and made important contributions towards our understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying crop biotic and abiotic stress tolerance. His group identified and characterized many rice genes involved in defense responses against rice blast (Magnaporthe oryzae), sheath blight (Rhizoctonia solani), and drought stress, three of the most critical factors negatively affecting production of rice and other agricultural crops worldwide. Yang's team revealed the role of MAP kinases in mediating the crosstalk between disease resistance and abiotic stress signaling. In 2003 and 2014 Plant Cell papers (Xiong and Yang, 2003; Xie et al., 2014), Yang's team demonstrated an inverse regulation of rice disease resistance and abiotic stress tolerance by a stress-responsive rice MAP kinase and a calcium-dependent protein kinase. The 2003 Plant Cell paper is one of the earliest to elucidate the molecular mechanism of biotic and abiotic cross-talks in plants and is highly cited (934 citations).

More recently, Yang's team uncovered important roles of ethylene biosynthesis and signaling in rice blast resistance (Helliwell et al., 2016) and demonstrated that transgenic rice with inducible production of ethylene confers broad spectrum resistance to the blast and sheath blight pathogens (Helliwell et al. 2012). Importantly, Yang and USDA collaborators isolated and validated a broad-spectrum rice blast resistance gene (Ptr) that is critical to US rice production (Zhao et al., 2018). His team has further identified several Ptr-interacting proteins and is characterizing their roles in the Ptr-mediated broad-spectrum resistance. Together, Yang's work has enhanced our understanding of the host-pathogen interaction important to rice and other agricultural crops.

In addition to his impact on our understanding of pathogen virulence and host immunity mechanisms, Yang is known worldwide for pioneering, improving, and applying CRISPR/Cas technologies to plant genome editing, precision breeding and disease diagnostics. Yang's work has significantly facilitated the use of these technologies by researchers across the globe. His team developed the algorithm, database and website for genome-wide prediction of specific guide RNA spacers for model plants and agricultural crops (Xie et al. 2014, Minkenberg et al., 2019). They published one of the first plant CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing papers (Xie and Yang, 2013), adapted the mammalian adenine base editors for single nucleotide editing in rice (Molla et al., 2020), and edited a commercial US rice cultivar for yield improvement and disease resistance (unpublished). In particular, his lab developed the polycistronic tRNA-gRNA (PTG) technology for highly efficient multiplex genome editing (Xie et al., 2015). The PTG technology has been broadly used in plant, human, animal, and microbial systems (the 2015 PNAS paper has 1042 citations) and was granted a US patent (10,308,947) and two foreign patents (Canada and China). The patent was licensed to a major agrobiotech company and a genome editing company for applications in plant and microbial genome editing.

Furthermore, by knocking out a polyphenol oxidase gene using CRISPR/Cas9, Yang created a transgene-free, anti-browning mushroom which was used as the first test case for regulation of CRISPR-edited crops in the US. USDA ruled in April 2016 that the CRISPR-edited mushroom would not be subjected to the typical GMO regulation because it does not carry any foreign DNA. The USDA ruling has profound implications for the development and regulation of CRISPR-edited crops and was widely reported by numerous scientific and popular news media.

Last but not least, Yang's lab successfully developed CRISPR/Cas12a-based diagnostic tools for highly sensitive and specific detection of 'Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus' and phytoplasmas (Wheatley et al., 2021 and 2022). In combination with lateral flow or other visual assays, this instrument-free, field-deployable method is expected to facilitate early detection of the devastating citrus greening disease and other important plant pathogens.

Yang has also excelled in his service to the greater scientific community. He made his materials publicly available by providing his genome editing reagents to researchers via the non-profit repository Addgene (809 requests) and has provided protocols and technical assistance on genome editing to many researchers worldwide. Furthermore, he has been training the next generation of scientists through his teaching and mentorship of graduate students and postdocs. He organized symposia at the APS annual meetings and served on the organizing committees for the International Rice Blast Conference, the International Congress of Plant Pathology, and the International Plant and Animal Genome Conference. In addition to providing numerous ad hoc reviews, Yang serves as an editor or editorial board member of several prestigious journals. Yang often shares his expertise by accepting invitations to write invited reviews and book chapters and provides over a hundred speaking invitations worldwide including keynote and plenary lectures. He is a recipient of the Research Innovator Award from Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.