January 8, 2021, by Andrew Edwards (Ed)

From China to the UK during the pandemic – An interview with Dr Yiqun Gao

Dr Yiqun Gao is based at the Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences. He is a Newton International Fellow at The Future Food Beacon and we are grateful to him for travelling to the UK to take up his Fellowship on 1st November 2020, right in the middle of the UK’s ongoing Covid-19 pandemic!

His brave decision to travel has already resulted in important progress on his project: The molecular basis underlying Casparian strip formation in rice and its role in water and solute uptake’. This forms part of a broader collaboration between the Future Food Beacon’s Prof. David E. Salt and his friends and colleagues in China, summarised here.  

Welcome Dr Gao! When did you start to study rice? What were you doing before?  

Thank you, I am very glad to join Future Food Beacon. I began my rice research in 2018 after I had finished my PhD in Shanghai.

My PhD focussed on the molecular function of choline in plants. In animals, choline is a well-understood essential chemical. Plants also produce choline but its function is rarely studied. Like all living organisms, plants need to maintain a stable balance of non-toxic minerals for proper growth and development (ion homeostasis). We found that in plants a choline transporter (CTL1) is vital for regulating ion homeostasis. CTL1 works by ensuring the movement of important proteins (vesicle trafficking) to their correct working location within cells. We concluded that characterizing CTL1 as a new regulator of protein sorting may enable researchers to understand not only ion homeostasis in plants but also vesicle trafficking in general.


What is the impact of your research in the real world?


Rice production accounts for more than half of China’s total grain production, with more than 60% of the population eating rice as a staple food. Along with industrialization and global climate change, great challenges exist for rice in China in the areas of mineral nutrition, abiotic stress, nutrient density and heavy metal pollution.

Casparian strips seal cells together in plant roots. Our project aims to identify and characterise the genes controlling Casparian strip formation in rice roots, then examine the role of these special cell structures in regulating mineral element and water homeostasis.

Such knowledge could be used for manipulating Casparian strips to improve rice traits such as nutrient use efficiency, drought and salinity tolerance, and mineral nutrient density and food safety – high priorities in China.


Wheat and barley are important food crops in the UK. Both are ‘gramineous’ plants, as is rice, but there are relatively few studies on functional genomics in wheat and barley compared with rice. Therefore, studying the biogenesis and function of Casparian strips in rice could provide an important reference point for understanding the function of Casparian strips in wheat and barley. This knowledge  could be used to improve the nutritional quality of wheat and barley in the UK and worldwide.

Our project is promoting scientific and technological exchange in the field of Casparian strip and ionomic research and strengthening the relationship between the ionomic communities of China and the UK.

Was it difficult to make the decision to travel to the UK during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic? Did you have any reservations about coming here?

Actually yes, I came to the UK at the end of October 2020 during the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, the number of daily new infections in the UK exceeded 20,000, and Nottingham even had the highest infection rate in the UK! My major concern was whether the severe pandemic in the UK would affect  experimental work through necessary restrictions on working hours and laboratory capacity.

How was the experience of travelling to, and arriving in, the UK during lockdown?

After a 12 hour flight, I arrived at London Heathrow Airport on 29th October 2020. Due to the pandemic, the border inspection process at the airport has become much slower than before. After 5 hours of waiting, I finally passed border control at 8pm.

I would like to thank Joanna Smuga-Lumatz, Administrator at the Future Food Beacon; she booked a taxi to pick me up at the airport and drive me to the Sutton Bonington campus, where she had arranged accommodation for me. Joanna also helped me to open a bank account and rent a house. I am also very grateful to my friend Dr Wenzhe Yin; he prepared a lot of daily necessities and food for me in advance, which made my life in the 14-day quarantine very easy.

During quarantine, I completed my preparations for entering the laboratory and held discussions with Professor David Salt and Dr Guilhem Reyt to plan future experiments.

Have you ever been here before?

This is my first visit to the University of Nottingham. I really like the environment and atmosphere of the Sutton Bonington campus. Although it is in a small town outside the city of Nottingham, the beautiful surrounding farmland and villages make me feel very comfortable.

How have the first few weeks been? Any highlights or successes?

In the first few weeks, I followed Dr. Guilhem Reyt to get familiar with the laboratory and gradually begin my experimental work. My previous experiments in China, combined with discoveries by Professor David Salt and Dr. Guilhem Reyt, have highlighted a number of dirigent proteins involved in the development of Casparian strips in the genetic model plant, Arabidopsis thaliana. This suggests that dirigent proteins are key regulators in Casparian strip development.

During the last few weeks, Guilhem and I have discovered a series of very interesting results through sequence analysis, transcriptome analysis and histochemical staining. We propose that these dirigent proteins may form a complex and work together in Casparian strip development; this will be a totally new and important discovery if our experiments bear it out!

Posted in InterviewsVisiting Fellows