Pulin Li joins Whitehead Institute

Pulin Li joins Whitehead Institute
April 2, 2019

Whitehead Institute announced today that the developmental and synthetic biologist Pulin Li will join the Institute in May as its newest Member. Li will also be appointed an assistant professor of biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At Whitehead Institute, she will pursue studies that could, ultimately, lead to methods for programming cells to form replacement tissues and prosthetic cells for regenerative medicine.

During her Ph.D. work at Harvard University, Li worked in the lab of Leonard Zon on hematopoietic stem cells using zebrafish as a model. Trained as a chemical biologist, she was interested in programming stem cells with chemicals to improve their engraftment efficiency upon transplantation. Working with zebrafish embryos, she discovered her passion for the fundamental molecular and cellular aspects of developmental biology. In particular, she wanted to understand how circuits of interacting genes, running as an automated program in individual cells, generate highly dynamic and yet choreographed multicellular behavior.

For her postdoctoral research at California Institute of Technology with Michael B. Elowitz, Li chose to study morphogen-mediated tissue patterning, a key process in embryo development and tissue regeneration. To directly test the relationship between the architecture of the genetic circuits and precision of tissue patterning, she reconstituted morphogen gradients in a petri dish. This system allows researchers to systematically rewire genetic circuits, finely tune the key parameters, and quantitatively analyze the resulting spatiotemporal patterning dynamics. This cell-based multiscale reconstitution approach, from genetic circuits to single cells to multicellular behavior, provides an important new methodology for studying developmental and evolutionary questions. It could also offer a quantitative framework and molecular tools for tissue engineering.

“Pulin’s insightful work has demonstrated that she is just the kind of pathbreaking scientist we prize at Whitehead Institute: brilliant, creative, and passionately dedicated to fundamental biomedical discovery,” says David Page, Whitehead Institute Director and Member. “She has taken a bottom‐up approach to understanding tissue patterning. As a result, for the first time, scientists are able to take a pathway apart, rebuild it, and analyze the role of each of its design features in a multicellular patterning process.”

Whitehead Institute Member and associate director Peter Reddien — who studies tissue regeneration in model organisms — chaired the search committee that recommended Li’s appointment. “Pulin’s research elegantly dissects the key principles of signaling pathways, and has great future potential,” Reddien notes. “By engineering genetic circuits and functional modules in single cells, she can start to understand how genetic circuits enable multicellular behavior and address myriad developmental questions.”

Li earned a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology at Harvard University, and a bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences from Peking University. Recipient of an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellowship and Santa Cruz Developmental Biology Young Investigator Award, Li currently holds a prestigious National Institutes of Health “Pathway to Independence” (K99) award from NICHD. She is a lead author on peer-reviewed studies that have appeared in the journals Nature and Science.

“It is a very exciting time to apply quantitative and engineering approaches to developmental biology questions,” says Li. “Whitehead Institute provides such a supportive and intellectually stimulating environment. I am thrilled to be back to Cambridge and be part of the research community of Whitehead, MIT, and the greater Boston area.”