National Academy of Sciences 2020 member highlight – Xiaofeng Cao

By Yun-Ting Kao (Plantae Fellow)

This year, nine plant scientists have been elected to the National Academy of  Science. We asked the newly elected plant scientists about how the news of their election to the NAS reached them, what inspires their research, and for their advice for early career researchers.

Xiaofeng is a Distinguished Professor in the Centre for Excellence in Molecular Plant Sciences, co-director of CAS-JIC Centre of Excellence for Plant and Microbial Science, and head of Center for Genome Biology in the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at Chinese Academy of Sciences, China.

Sparked by the curiosity of mysteries in nature, Xiaofeng was determined to be a scientist since middle school. After finishing college, she joined the late Lungfei Yen’s lab for a Master’s degree and was deeply inspired by his research and philosophy: “Professor Yen urged me to use new technology and methods in my research and keep up with the development of biotechnology. In addition, he respected colleagues and supported many young scholars. My time in his lab nurtured my self-confidence and made me embrace the challenge of new research questions.”

During her PhD, Xiaofeng spent time in Liam Dolan’s lab as a visiting scholar at the John Innes Centre (UK), and he always encouraged Xiaofeng to attend scientific meetings to meet other scientists and broaden intellectual horizons. In 1999, she started working with Steve Jacobsen at the University of California at Los Angeles on epigenetics. She described, “I went to the epigenetics field by accident. DNA methylation seemed interesting to me but there was not much known at the time. I felt really lucky that Steve and I worked hard together to uncover many interesting findings.”

Using Arabidopsis and rice as model systems, Xiaofeng studies the molecular mechanisms of epigenetic regulation in plant development with the focus on how histone modification and small non-coding RNAs regulate gene expression. Her team pioneered controlling Arabidopsis flowering time via histone methylation. In addition, they discovered the connection between histone methylation and the specificity of retrotransposon target site, and further demonstrated the impact of transposon for controlling important agricultural traits in rice. They are now studying the role of epigenetics in how plants adapt to stresses, such as low temperature and saline-alkali soil.

Many congratulatory emails from NAS members and colleagues all over the world delivered the news to Xiaofeng. “I am so thrilled to receive such wonderful news. It is my great honor to be elected. I wish my election could encourage more female students to consider a career in science,” said Xiaofeng. She feels passionate about increasing women representatives in science as only 6% of academicians are women in the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She encourages young women to be “active, independent, self-confident, and innovative.”

Xiaofeng first joined ASPB in 2014 and she has been serving on the editorial board of the Plant Cell since 2010. She also serves on the editorial boards of many other journals, including Journal of Genetics and Genomics, Science China Life Sciences, National Science Review, and Current Opinion in Plant Biology.

Leave a Comment