Yingfu Li (GG 1997)
After completing his PhD in biochemistry at SFU, Yingfu (Jeff) Li is cruising on an academic road that has yet to peak. Now he is a tenured professor at McMaster University, holder of a Canada Research Chair in the Directed Evolution of Nucleic Acids, and is one of the first scientists to study the creation of genetic material for use as enzymes to detect damaged genes or destroy cancer cells.
Li’s laboratory focuses on creating and studying DNA with interesting properties, including the ability to chew up RNA molecules or to disable disease-causing proteins.
Having created a variety of tiny DNA molecules with catalytic abilities – meaning they enable chemical reactions to occur much faster – his lab is using these tools in biomedical applications, including bio-sensing, disease control, and drug screening.
“Instead of relying on Mother Nature to supply us with DNA or RNA molecules for our study, we create them in our hands using test-tube evolution technologies on a time scale of weeks,” describes Li. “We then have a lot of fun getting them to do interesting things for us.”
Li’s passion for his research took root at SFU where he began in organic chemistry, then quickly switched his focus when he learned about a groundbreaking DNA project in its early stages in SFU’s department of molecular biology and biochemistry.
For his thesis project, he isolated a very small catalytic DNA enzyme, demonstrated its effectiveness, and characterized its properties in what his thesis supervisor, Professor Dipankar Sen, describes as “astonishing depth.”
Li’s discovery, reported in top international scientific journals, boosted research in the emerging field of DNA catalysis.