With the Researcher Spotlight, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Nicholas Wu, PhD
Department of Biochemistry
Dr. Nicholas Wu is an assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry. His long-term research interests focus on the driving forces and functional constraints of virus evolution, using multidisciplinary approaches involving molecular virology, evolutionary biology, biochemistry, bioinformatics, and structural biology. During his PhD studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), he has developed a high-throughput mutational fitness-profiling platform for measuring the fitness effect of a large number of viral mutants in parallel. During his postdoctoral studies at Scripps Research, he has further expanded his research to structural biology of viral proteins and antibodies, using both X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy. Through integrating high-throughput mutational analysis and structural biology, Dr. Wu has detailed the intimate relationship between the evolution of the influenza receptor binding mechanism and antigenic drift. He has also characterized the structural basis for the low effectiveness of the seasonal influenza vaccine as well as the broadly neutralizing antibody response to the influenza virus. While the main focus of his research has been on the influenza virus, he occasionally works on other viruses such as HIV and HCV. Recently, Dr. Wu has also been studying SARS-CoV-2, the causative virus of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the support of K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from NIH, his lab at Illinois continues to investigate different evolutionary pressures on viruses.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
The research focus of my lab includes immune-virus interaction and virus evolution. I decided to dedicate my career in virus research since I have experienced the devastating effects of two viral outbreaks in my hometown Hong Kong, namely the H5N1 outbreak in 1997 and the SARS epidemic in 2003. While my lab mainly focuses on influenza virus, we occasionally work on other viruses such as HIV, HCV, and SARS-CoV-2.
How does being part of the University of Illinois and/or the Champaign-Urbana community impact your research?
I really enjoy the collaborative environment at Illinois, which has enabled a smooth initiation of my research program. We currently have productive collaborations with research groups in the Departments of Biochemistry, Microbiology, Physics, and Computer Science. In addition, staff members at the flow cytometry core and the next-generation sequencing core have been extremely helpful.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
By studying antibody response and virus evolution, my research will have important implications for vaccine development.
Recent news has pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic, systemic racism, and mental health as major societal health challenges. What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing these challenges?
Many labs in my field (virology and immunology) have shifted their research focus to SARS-CoV-2, the causal virus of COVID-19 pandemic. These efforts have been critical for the development of therapeutics and vaccines.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
have done during the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been working on SARS-CoV-2. One project is to characterize the shared molecular features among anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies from different COVID-19 patients. The results will not only benefit vaccine development and assessment, but also improve our fundamental understanding of the ability of the antibody repertoire to rapidly respond to viral infections.