CLEMSON, South Carolina — Yunhui Peng, a doctoral student in Clemson University College of Science’s department of physics and astronomy, received a 2017 Chateaubriand Fellowship from the Embassy of France in the United States. Starting in fall 2017, Peng will travel to Paris Diderot University for a nine-month fellowship to advance his studies of disease-causing mutations.

Peng, who originally is from Ankang, a city in the Shaanxi Province in China, is a fourth-year doctoral student in professor Emil Alexov’s Computational Biophysics and Bioinformatics lab. Alexov and his lab members focus their research on the computational modeling of biological macromolecules, such as lipids, nucleic acids and proteins. They also maintain the software for a scientific application called DelPhi, which calculates the electrostatic potential of these macromolecules. The study of disease-causing mutations is a specific interest for those in the Alexov lab.

Yunhui Peng is a fourth-year doctoral student in professor Emil Alexov's Computational Biophysics and Bioinformatics lab.

Yunhui Peng is a fourth-year doctoral student in professor Emil Alexov’s Computational Biophysics and Bioinformatics lab.
Image Credit: Yunhui Peng

“The project in France actually has a very good connection with my current research analyzing disease-causing mutations of proteins,” Peng said. “We know that proteins are basic functional units of the human body, so mutations in their genetic precursors mean there will be changes on the proteins that have very profound effects. Mostly, these effects are detrimental and cause disease; thus, my current studies have me reviewing the molecular outcomes of the mutations to find out why they cause disease.”

Every year, the Chateaubriand Fellowship in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM) and Biology-Health is granted to approximately 50 exceptional doctoral students in the STEM and health disciplines at American universities. Peng was chosen for the fellowship in part because of the large strides he’s made in Alexov’s lab.

“Yunhui is an outstanding Ph.D. student in my lab,” Alexov said. “He has already published six peer-reviewed papers, five of which as the first author. Four other papers are currently under review and in one of them, Mr. Peng is first and corresponding author. This is much more than one expects from a graduate student. His performance is excellent — he is an expert in computational biophysics.”

Alexov went on to underscore the breakthroughs that Peng has discovered since he began studying at Clemson University.

“In my lab, Yunhui has developed a new method for predicting binding affinity changes of protein-DNA complexes that are caused by mutations. This is extremely important for understanding the effect of disease-causing mutations on protein-DNA binding,” Alexov said. “Using a variety of techniques, Yunhui also developed a structural model of a protein that’s structure is not available experimentally. The model is crucial for studying effects of mutations causing mental disorders. He pioneered investigation on the role of proton transfer in protein nucleic acid binding. This study revealed various mechanisms of interactions occurring at protein nucleic acid interfaces that affects ionization states of titratable sites.”

Funding for the Chateaubriand Fellowship is provided by the Embassy of France in partnership with French research organizations and the National Science Foundation’s GROW program, which supports opportunities for American graduate students to participate in international research.

During his stay in France, Peng will work to identify potential drugs that can cure disease and rescue the effects of disease-causing mutations. Not only is he excited to study abroad, but he’s hopeful that his research will one day benefit others.

“The diseases I study are ones that affect many people,” Peng said. “There are parents who come to Dr. Alexov’s office asking for help, because their child has a particular disorder — one that our group is working on — and there’s no existing treatment for that disease. So I hope that my work will be able to help those people in the future.”