Pioneering UChicago chemist wins 2023 Wolf Prize

Prof. Chuan He earns prestigious award for foundational RNA research

University of Chicago chemist Chuan He has been awarded the prestigious Wolf Prize in chemistry for his pioneering discovery of reversible RNA methylation and its role in gene expression. 

Awarded by the Israeli-based Wolf Foundation, the annual prize honors the greatest achievements in the fields of agriculture, chemistry, mathematics, physics, medicine and the arts. The award was established in 1978 and carries a $100,000 prize.

He, the John T. Wilson Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemistry, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, was the first to champion the idea that modifications to RNA are reversible and can control gene expression. His groundbreaking studies helped open a new field in biology known as epitranscriptomics.

He shared the 2023 prize, announced Feb. 7, with Hiroaki Suga of the University of Tokyo and Jeffrey W. Kelly of the Scripps Research Institute. 

In its announcement, the foundation cited the three chemists' “pioneering discoveries that illuminate the functions and pathological dysfunctions of RNA and proteins, and for creating strategies to harness the capabilities of biopolymers in new ways to ameliorate human disease.”

“I am just thrilled and honored. I want to thank all my current and former co-workers. They are the ones who made this possible,” said He, who is also an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the director of the Pritzker Plant Biology Center. I also want to thank my collaborators, colleagues and the University for the support I received in the past 20-and-a-half years. I cannot wait to see the next discovery from my lab.”

In 2011, He discovered a new fundamental mechanism that dictates how our genes are expressed from DNA into reality. Protein-encoding genes in our genome are transcribed into messenger RNAs and then translated into functional proteins. A process called RNA methylation is critical to both steps; He’s team reported the first family of “eraser” proteins, which undo these modifications—proving they can actually be reversible. His team also elucidated key pathways on how RNA methylation regulates gene expression. This research laid down the path for our current understanding of how such modifications impact the body and health outcomes, including cancer and many other diseases.

His research spans a broad range of RNA biology. chemical biology, biochemistry, molecular biology, epigenetics, and genomics. He’s laboratory currently works towards understanding the pathways of how RNA modifications control gene expression, as well as the impacts on mammalian development and human diseases. 

Recently his team used this knowledge and developed a RNA demethylation approach that appears to be able to significantly increase plants’ yield and drought tolerance, which is currently being explored in the newly created Pritzker Plant Biology Center.

The findings are also making their way into clinical applications in a large number of academic laboratories and a growing number of drug development companies.

“The work of Professor Chuan He is transformative at many levels,” said Angela Olinto, dean of the Physical Sciences Division at the University of Chicago. “We are thrilled that the Wolf Foundation has recognized his groundbreaking research with this prestigious prize.”

“Dr. He’s groundbreaking discoveries of reversible RNA methylation and its role as a new mechanism for gene expression regulation have revolutionized our understanding of the role of RNA in gene regulation,” said Viresh Rawal, chair of the Department of Chemistry at UChicago. “The Wolf Prize is a well-deserved recognition of his tremendous impact on the field.”

Chuan He was born in China in 1972 and received his B.S. in 1994 from the University of Science and Technology of China. He received his Ph.D from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in chemistry in 2000. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, he joined the University of Chicago in 2002.

He was selected as an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 2013. In 2017, he received the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research. He is also a member of the Cancer Research Center at the University of Chicago and a member of the Institute for Biophysical Dynamics.

A number of current UChicago faculty have won the Wolf Prize, including Profs. Gregory Lawler in 2019Alexander Beilinson and Vladimir Drinfeld in 2018; and Stuart Rice in 2011. President Paul Alivisatos was honored in 2012.