First Person is a series of interviews with the first authors of a selection of papers published in Biology Open, helping early-career researchers promote themselves alongside their papers. Yao Xiao is first author on ‘ Regulation of NANOG and SOX2 expression by activin A and a canonical WNT agonist in bovine embryonic stem cells and blastocysts’, published in BiO. Yao conducted the research described in this article while a postdoc in Peter J. Hansen's lab at Department of Animal Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville Florida, USA. He is now an associate professor in the lab of Jinming Huang at Shandong Provincial Key Laboratory of Animal Disease Control and Breeding, at the Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, China, investigating regulation of cell potency in cattle.
What is your scientific background and the general focus of your lab?
I earned the PhD in Dr. Liguo Yang's lab at Huazhong Agricultural University in China. We were developing a novel embryo technology in cattle. I joined Dr Rongjia Zhou's lab as a postdoc at Wuhan University in China to study cardiac differentiation by using a zebrafish embryonic cell model that we established. I then worked with Dr Robert Collier and Dr Ben Renquist at the University of Arizona in the USA focusing on developing solutions for reducing impacts of environmental stress on cells and animals. I completed my last postdoc with Dr Peter Hansen at the University of Florida. My work focused on understanding regulation of bovine embryonic development and pluripotency of bovine embryonic stem cells by maternally-derived cell-signaling molecules. Currently, I am an associate professor and collaborate with a group of young scientists leading by Dr Jinming Huang at Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences. Our goal is to genetically improve the performance of dairy cattle by using various biotechnologies including genome selection, gene editing and advanced reproductive tools.
“Our goal is to genetically improve the performance of dairy cattle by using various biotechnologies including genome selection, gene editing and advanced reproductive tools.”
How would you explain the main findings of your paper to non-scientific family and friends?
Livestock species were domesticated thousands of years ago. Throughout this time, livestock production systems depended on live animals. With recent advances in stem-cell technologies in these species, we may be able in the future to produce environmentally friendly animal products efficiently without the need of raising animals. Our research expanded our knowledge of how to grow livestock stem cells in a stable state. This is an important step in achieving our long-term goals.
What are the potential implications of these results for your field of research?
The regulation of pluripotency of embryonic stem cells by canonical WNT signaling has been a controversial topic. Using both embryonic development and embryonic stem-cell models, our study indicates that WNT signaling needs to be suppressed for establishment and retention of cell stemness in cattle. Our results also shed light on the role of activin A signal in lineage segregation and pluripotency marker expression.
What has surprised you the most while conducting your research?
Supplementation of activin A on day 4 of development alters lineage segregation in bovine embryos. Heretofore, the role of this member of the TGF-beta family member in regulation of preimplantation development in cattle was unclear.
What, in your opinion, are some of the greatest achievements in your field and how has this influenced your research?
Dr Pablo Ross's lab reported an efficient and reliable way to maintain bovine pluripotency in culture dishes in experiments published in PNAS in 2018. Their results make it possible for researchers including me to understand, explore and use embryonic stem cells in livestock.
What changes do you think could improve the professional lives of early-career scientists?
Training in critical thinking and guidance for choosing an appropriate research direction after graduation.
“The regulation of pluripotency in livestock species is largely unknown.”
What's next for you?
The regulation of pluripotency in livestock species is largely unknown. Lack of understanding may restrain the use of assisted reproduction and stem-cell technologies for animal production. I am keen to continue to elucidate the signaling pathways which are essential for stemness.
Yao Xiao's contact details: Shandong Provincial Key Laboratory of Animal Disease Control and Breeding, Institute of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, Shandong Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Jinan, Shandong 250100, China