“Life is short, so let’s work on things that matter to the world”
Says Dr. Nozomu Yachie. His innovative research – bringing together genome editing, cell engineering, mouse genetics and computational data mining – is creating groundbreaking technologies with the potential to record how a singe fertilized egg develops into a complex system of trillions of cells.
- Campus: Vancouver
Education: PhD in Systems Biology (Keio University); MMG in Bioinformatics (Keio University); BA in Computer Science (Keio University)
Why did you decide to study engineering?
"I’ve come to realize that what I’m doing fits into the discipline of engineering and I now see myself as both a scientist and an engineer."
I actually only began identifying myself as an engineer two years ago when I came to UBC. I did my undergraduate degree in computational biology analyzing genomic sequences, and then jumped into the field of genetics. In 2014 I started my lab at the University of Tokyo where I worked on modifying the genomic sequence of cancer and stem cells, which required developing technologies related to genomic engineering and genome editing. Two years ago I was recruited by the School of Biomedical Engineering to start a lab here at UBC.
Undergrad Biomedical EngineeringResearch In Biomedical Engineering
Tell us about the technology you are developing to track cellular development.
I’m interested in cell differentiation: the process of going from a single fertilized egg to a complex system of trillions of cells. There’s a big limitation in biology in that we can’t observe this dynamic process and can only take snapshots in time, which requires killing the cells we’re observing.
I had the crazy idea that we could, in essence, create a super-miniature video camera to observe what’s going on inside the embryo as it develops. This technology would be installed within the fertilized egg, and when it divides into two cells, four cells, eight cells and so on, the “video camera” would replicate itself and be in each new cell recording what was going on.
How does that concept actually work?
"The “camera” that we’re proposing is a form of DNA event recording technology."
To develop this technology, you need four different components. First, you require a content memory system to store information. We use the DNA sequence with its four proteins to do this, in the same way that computers store information in binary code. Second, you need a sensor capable of sensing different biological events. Third, you need a writer system to write these observations to a DNA “tape”. And finally, you need reader technology to recover what was going on. This brings together genome editing, cell engineering, mouse genetics and computational data mining.
We’ve made progress in the writing and reading technology (genome editing and high-performance computing) that has made us famous in the field, and we recently succeeded in tracing the lineage of cell division at the animal level. Our sensors have demonstrated proof of concept in capturing gene expression patterns and recording them to a tape. Continuing to develop and integrate all these components is the next step.
What are the potential applications for this technology?
"This technology would enable us to see the cell development and differentiation process dynamically."
The goal is ambitious and I can’t predict the impact. Ultimately, this information could deepen our knowledge of developmental and cancer biology, which could be used to create targeted therapeutics.
I compare it to 20 years ago when the human genome was first sequenced and no one really knew how this information might be used. Although there were skeptics at the time, the human genome sequence is the foundation of current biology and is integrated into many different areas. This work could have a similar impact.
Your research itself integrates many different disciplines.
Yes, the work in my lab brings together lots of areas, from cell biology and chemistry to computational science and engineering. I’m the moderator and conceptualizer who brings in fantastic people in each area and my job is one of engineering their collaborations and determining how best to integrate their areas of expertise. The more people and diversity you have, the more innovative you can be and the more fun you can have!
Learn More About The Yachie Lab
Watch Dr. Nozomu Yachie speak at UBC Engineering Open House
What courses do you teach?
At the undergrad level, I teach biomedical engineering and on regenerative medicine in biotechnology. Undergraduates can work as research assistants in my lab.
Anything else you want to share?
In my research program, I’m teaching people to be a little crazy – encouraging them to maximize their potential by not staying within one discipline or a single closed shell. But in order to break the wall, you need to have many colleagues and collaborators, and you need to know your own strengths and weaknesses. I also tell my undergraduate students that they need to recognize how privileged they are by their education and the importance of using their knowledge to make a difference. Life is short, so let’s work on things that matter to the world.