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Research: Molecular basis of RNA function

Associate Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics
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.

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

  • Zhao, B., Guffy, S.L., Williams, B., and Zhang, Q.*, “An excited state underlies gene regulation of a transcriptional riboswitch,” Nature Chemical Biology, 13:968–974 (2017)
  • Wang, Y., Yesselman, J.D., Zhang, Q., Kang, M., and Feigon, J.*, “Structural conservation in the template/pseudoknot domain of vertebrate telomerase RNA from teleost fish to human,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 113:E5125–34 (2016)
  • Zhao, B., and Zhang, Q.*, “Measuring residual dipolar couplings in excited conformational states of nucleic acids by CEST NMR spectroscopy,” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 137:13480–13483 (2015)
  • Zhao, B., Hansen, A.L., and Zhang, Q.*, “Characterizing slow chemical exchange in nucleic acids by carbon CEST and low spin-lock field R1ρ NMR spectroscopy,” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 136:20–23 (2014)
  • Zhang, Q., Kim, N.K., Peterson, R.D., Wang, Z., and Feigon, J.*, “Structurally conserved five nucleotide bulge determines the overall topology of the core domain of human telomerase RNA,” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 107:18761–18768 (2010)
  • Zhang, Q., and Al-Hashimi, H.M.*, “Extending the NMR spatial resolution limit for RNA by motional couplings,” Nature Methods, 5:243–245 (2008)
  • Zhang, Q., Stelzer, A., Fisher, C.K., and Al-Hashimi, H.M.*, “Visualizing spatially correlated dynamics that directs RNA conformational transitions,” Nature, 450:1263–1267 (2007)
  • Zhang, Q., Sun, X., Watt, E.D., and Al-Hashimi, H.M.*, “Resolving the motional modes that code for RNA adaptation,” Science, 311:653–656 (2006)
  • Zhang, Q., Throolin, R., Pitt, S.W., Serganov, A., and Al-Hashimi, H.M.*, “Probing motions between equivalent RNA domains using magnetic field induced residual dipolar couplings: Accounting for correlations between motions and alignment,” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 125:10530–10531 (2003)

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