N.C. State University’s Plants for Human Health Institute continues its expansion efforts by adding another established scientist to its team at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis. Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh (pronounced: “Zung Foo Shay”) joined the institute in August 2012 and is developing a research program centered on the biological systems of flowering plants, including fruits and vegetables. With the addition of Hsieh, N.C. State now employs nearly 50 faculty and staff in Kannapolis.
Hsieh specializes in systems biology, a relatively new field of research that studies the interactions between the components of biological systems, and how those relationships impact the functions and behaviors of the systems. His area of focus is known as epigenetics, which aims to understand changes in gene behaviors that are caused by factors other than mutations in DNA. Epigenetics plays an important role in plant development.
For example, Hsieh studies the development of endosperms, the placenta-like tissue inside the seeds of most flowering plants that nourish the embryo. Endosperm plays a critical role in human nutrition and health, accounting for more than 75 percent of the world’s food supply, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). That’s because cereal crops like corn, rice and wheat – some of the most widely produced crops in the world – are harvested for their grains, which are mostly endosperm.
Hsieh is working to better understand endosperm development, including the role imprinted genes play. Like humans, plants receive two copies of a gene (one each from the mother and father). Imprinted genes are those whose behaviors are determined by the parent that contributed them, and they dictate traits like birth weight in babies and the size and color of grains of corn.
Using systems biology approaches, Hsieh and colleagues have already identified certain epigenetic processes as critical regulators for plant reproduction and endosperm development. His studies will provide new opportunities for investigating how the environment can exert influences on plants through epigenetic changes.
“Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh brings a dynamic research focus to our organization,” said Dr. Mary Ann Lila, director of the Plants for Human Health Institute. “His focus on plant epigenetics will serve as a valuable interface with other research programs at the N.C. Research Campus, creating opportunities with both academic and industry partners.“
Ultimately, Hsieh would like to collaborate with campus partners using the techniques he and colleagues have developed to decipher how plant epigenetics may impact human health. He also plans to study how epigenetics regulates the production of plant secondary metabolites, organic compounds that are not directly involved in the normal growth, development or reproduction of an organism.
Hsieh is an assistant professor in N.C. State’s Department of Plant Biology. He holds a Ph.D. in biology from Texas A&M University, where he also completed a postdoctoral fellowship and worked for four years. He most recently held a senior research scientist position at the University of California, Berkeley. Hsieh has published nearly two-dozen research articles and holds four scientific patents.
The Plants for Human Health Institute now includes seven lead research faculty, with seven more expected to be hired in the future. The institute employs nearly 50 total faculty and staff, including postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and Cooperative Extension employees.
Writer: Justin Moore