Stephen Fleenor: In which lab do you work?
John Young: I work in Richard Harland’s lab, at UC Berkeley.
SF: How long have you been there?
JY: I’ve been in his lab for four years, but I’ve been a student for five, because we do rotations the first year.
SF: I see. Well, congratulations on winning the poster prize. What was the crux of the poster?
JY: I’m interested in morphogens. I took a class from Mike Levine when I was a first-year student, and I was totally taken by the dorsal gradient and eve stripe enhancers, and I wanted to do something similar in vertebrates. So I chose to look at the neural plate. The neural plate is first induced to become neural tissue, and then it’s patterned by factors like Wnt, Fgf and retinoic acid. I chose to study Wnt and have been looking at Wnt-responsive genes in neuralized ectoderm. I first looked for direct transcriptional targets of Wnt signalling, and once I found those, I looked for the regulatory regions that mediated Wnt responses in these targets.
SF: And have you found regulatory regions?
JY: Using ChIP-qPCR with beta-catenin I found one regulatory region for one of my candidates that looks really good. Based on that I’m now doing ChIp-Seq with the beta-catenin antibody. I found a lot of direct targets of Wnt signalling, and a number of them showed specific expression in the posterior neural tissue. The two that I followed up with suggest that they modulate AP patterning.
The targets that I followed up after the screen were sall1 and sall4. I chose to work on these two because sall4 is a stem cell factor, and Sall1 has a human mutation associated with it. No one had yet looked at their roles in neural patterning in frogs, though, so I thought they’d be good ones to follow up on.
SF: Sounds like a pretty solid story
JY: It’s coming along!
SF: Have you ever won a poster prize before?
JY: Just at a retreat, and that was second place. This is real!
SF: Was it for the same work?
JY: Yes, it was, but it was a while ago, before things had been fleshed out.
SF: What was the element of your poster that now made it prize-worthy on an international scale?
JY: I think it was that I had knocked down the second Sall gene as well. At first I only had sall1, but now I’m working on both sall1 and 4. And at that time I didn’t have any of the ChIP data either. My project was first to find direct targets, and then I decided to look for the regulatory regions. Finding direct targets was really cool in itself, but it was only half the story.
SF: You’re four years into your PhD research. What are your plans?
JY: I’m going to do a postdoc in Cliff Tabin’s lab. I’m so excited about that, but it’s not until next summer. Now I have a year to finish up this story, and I also need to finish this completely separate project, looking at noggin mutants that I induced in Xenopus tropicalis.
SF: Do you think you’re close to closing the door on the Wnt project?
JY: I think so. I think once we get the beta-catenin ChIP-Seq data back that we can make a nice story out of that. The noggin stuff is not too far off either, so I can get it done in a year.
SF: Are you going to go to the BSDB meeting in Warwick?
JY: Absolutely! I’ve only been to Europe twice – once when I was 15, and in Oslo a number of years ago. I haven’t been to Europe much at all, so I’m looking forward to this opportunity.
At the BSDB meeting in 2013, John will, in turn, interview the winner of the BSDB poster prize.