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Research: Molecular basis of RNA function

Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics
Diversity and Inclusion Liaison and Diversity Committee Chair
(PhD – University of Michigan)


Trained Faculty Mentor endorsed by Office of Graduate Ed UNC Chapel Hill


  • NSF CAREER award, 2017
  • UNC Jefferson Pilot Fellowship, 2015
  • The March of Dimes Basil O’Connor Starter Scholar Research Award – 2013
  • The Baltimore Family Fellow of the Life Sciences Research Foundation – 2008
  • The RNA Society/Scaringe Young Scientist Award – 2008


The last thirty years have witnessed exciting discoveries of diverse functions carried out by non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs), ranging from enzymatic catalysis to gene regulation. Significant progress has been achieved towards understanding the chemical basis for these newly discovered ncRNA functions by solving high-resolution structures at various stages along the functional pathways using X-ray crystallography and nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy. However, these static atomic images convey little information regarding how these ncRNAs undergo the structural transitions required to carry out their biological functions.

Our laboratory is primarily focusing on developing and applying solution-state NMR methods, together with computational and biochemical approaches, to understand the molecular basis of RNA function. In particular, we aim to visualize, with atomic resolution, the entire dynamic process of ribozyme catalysis, riboswitch-based gene regulation, and co-transcriptional folding of mRNA. The principles deduced from these studies will provide atomic basis for rationally manipulating RNA catalysis and folding, and for de novo design of small molecules that target specific RNA signals involving in cancer and human disease. Research program in the laboratory provides diverse training opportunities in areas of spectroscopy, biophysics, structural biology, computational modeling, and biochemistry.

SELECTED PUBLICATIONS pubmed.png (click for full publication list)

Liu, X.#, Wang, J.#Boyer, J. A., Gong, W., Zhao, S., Xie, L., Wu, Q., Zhang, C., Jain, K., Guo, Y., Rodriguez, J., Li, M., Uryu, H., Liao, C., Hu, L., Zhou, J., Shi, X., Tsai, Y. H., Yan, Q., Luo, W., Chen, X., Strahl, B. D., von Kriegsheim, A., Zhang, Qi., Wang, G. G.*, Baldwin, A. S.*, and Zhang, Qing.*, “Histone H3 Proline 16 Hydroxylation Regulates Mammalian Gene Expression”, Nature Genetics, 54:1721–1735 (2022) (# Contributed Equally) pubmed

Krishnarjuna, B.#, Ravula, T.#, Faison, E. M.#, Tonelli, M., Zhang, Q.*, and Ramamoorthy, A.*, “Polymer-Nanodiscs as a Novel Alignment Medium for High-Resolution NMR-Based Structural Studies of Nucleic Acids”, Biomolecules, 12:1628 (2022) (# Contributed Equally) pubmed

Welsh, K.A., Bolhuis, D.L., Nederstigt, A.E., Boyer, J., Temple, B.R., Bonacci, T., Gu, L., Ordureau, A., Harper, J.W., Steimel, J.P., Zhang, Q., Emanuele, M.J., Harrison, J.S.*, and Brown, N.G.*, “Functional Conservation and Divergence of the Helix-turn-helix Motif of E2 Ubiquitin-conjugating Enzymes”, EMBO J., 41:e108823 (2022) pubmed

Baisden, J. T., Boyer, J. A., Zhao, B., Hammond, S. M., and Zhang, Q.*, “Visualizing a Protonated RNA State that Modulates MicroRNA-21 Maturation,” Nature Chem. Biol., 17:80-88 (2021) pubmed

Boyer, J. A.#, Spangler, C. J.#, Strauss, J. D.#, Cesmat, A. P., Liu, P., McGinty, R. K.*, and Zhang, Q.*, Structural Basis of Nucleosome-dependent cGAS Inhibition, Science, 370:450-454 (2020) (# Contributed Equally) pubmed

Zhang, Y.#, Ma, Z.#, Wang, Y.#, Boyer, J., Ni, G., Cheng, L., Su, S., Zhang, Z., Zhu, Z., Qian, J., Su, L., Zhang, Q., Damania, B.*, and Liu, P.*, “Streptavidin Promotes DNA Binding and Activation of cGAS to Enhance Innate Immunity,” iScience, 23:101463 (2020) (# Contributed Equally) pubmed

Zhao, B.#, Baisden, J. T.#, and Zhang, Q.*, “Probing Excited Conformational States of Nucleic Acids by Nitrogen CEST NMR Spectroscopy,” J. Magn. Reson., 310:106642 (2020) (# Contributed Equally) pubmed

Thompson, R. D., Baisden, J. T., and Zhang, Q.*, “NMR Characterization of RNA Small Molecule Interactions,” Methods, 167:66-77 (2019) pubmed

Eubanks, C. S., Zhao, B., Patwardhan, N. N., Thompson, R. D., Zhang, Q., and Hargrove, A. E.*, “Visualizing RNA Conformational Changes via Pattern Recognition of RNA by Small Molecules,” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 141:5692-5698 (2019) pubmed

Williams, B.#, Zhao, B.#, Tandon, A., Ding, F., Weeks, K. M., Zhang, Q.*, and Dokholyan, N. V.*, “Structure Modeling of RNA Using Sparse NMR Constraints,” Nucleic Acids Research, 45:12638-12647 (2017) (# Contributed Equally) pubmed

Zhao, B., Guffy, S. L., Williams, B., and Zhang, Q.*, “An Excited State Underlies Gene Regulation of a Transcriptional Riboswitch,” Nature Chem. Biol., 13:968-974 (2017) pubmed

Lab Contact:

Lab Rooms: 3023A Genetic Medicine
Lab Phone: 919-843-5865
  • Phone Number

    919-966-5770 (Office Phone)

  • Address

    120 Mason Farm Road, CB# 7260

    3017 Genetic Medicine Building

    Chapel Hill, NC 27599-7260