Elsa Yan Honored for Her Research on Molecular Basis of Vision
Vision may be something that most of us take for granted, but not Elsa Yan. The assistant professor of chemistry has been studying the molecular basis of vision since she started applying physical chemistry techniques to study molecular biology problems as a postdoctoral researcher a few years ago.
Now she’ll have a chance to delve deeper into one of the fundamental questions surrounding vision and how it works. The chemist has been awarded a CAREER Award, the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious honor for junior faculty who excel at integrating research with teaching.
Yan is particularly interested in a certain protein in the eye where vision first starts. The protein, called rhodopsin, acts as a light detector for incoming photons (light particles). With the CAREER Award funding, Yan hopes to uncover what makes rhodopsin so efficient at detecting light and suppressing background noise so that a clear signal can be sent to the brain for interpretation.
When an incoming photon hits rhodopsin, it causes the protein to undergo a conformational change — it’s this change in its configuration that kick-starts the whole process of sight. Photons aren’t the only thing that can cause the protein to suddenly undergo this change; other environmental factors can cause spontaneous reconfiguration. But such occurrences — which Yan explains could result in seeing a sudden flash of light even in the total absence of light — are extremely rare.
One hypothesis to explain the rarity of these “misfires” is that rhodopsin is held stable by a network of hydrogen bonds within the molecule that keep the protein from spontaneously changing configuration. “This is an amazing problem that’s been studied for a long time,” Yan says. “But no one has set forth to test the hypothesis at a molecular level before.”
As part of the educational aspect of the grant, undergraduate students will have the opportunity to help out with lab work, purifying and characterizing the protein. Yan already works with four undergraduates and will likely take on a fifth this summer. “It’s extremely rewarding working with undergraduates at Yale. They are so smart,” she says.
Thanks to the nature of her research, Yan doesn’t have a hard time attracting new students. “Vision is a fascinating subject. It always interests people,” she says. “When I first learned about rhodopsin, I was just stunned. It works so beautifully for this purpose. It’s still my favorite molecule.”
— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin