Dr. Li Qiye, Researcher and Executive Director of the Digital Earth Research Institute at BGI-Research, has always been passionate about exploring the diversity of life on our planet, and he describes it as a childhood dream that has guided him onto a journey of becoming a scientist.
Over the years, Dr. Li's passion for exploring the evolution of life, from the angle of genomics, has led him to multiple groundbreaking research accomplishments in the past few months, including the building of the first comprehensive single-cell atlas of ant brains that was featured on the cover of Nature Ecology & Evolution, as well as a recent study on the origin and evolution of RNA editing in the animal kingdom that was published in Cell Reports.
Dr. Li Qiye, Researcher and Executive Director of the Digital Earth Research Institute at BGI-Research
Dr. Li's achievements are part of the efforts that BGI-Research has made, a core science research arm of BGI Group that has contributed to over 39% of the animal and plant genomes sequenced globally.
One of Dr. Li's most exciting projects involved exploring the world of ants, which he describes as "very interesting because, like humans, they [ants] perform labor division and have complex behaviors such as farming, grazing, and even waging wars." Using BGI-Research's single-cell sequencing platform, Dr. Li and his team worked with other global collaborators to obtain more than 200,000 single-nucleus transcriptomes from the pharaoh ant brains and constructed a comprehensive single-cell atlas covering all adult phenotypes of this ant species - workers, males, gynes (virgin queens), and queens. From on this atlas, they found evidence supporting an old idea proposed more than 100 years ago that an ant colony is a “superorganism”.
For many years, Dr. Li and his team have been studying and furthering our understanding of ants. Their projects include deciphering the characteristics of ant genomes, uncovering the regulatory role of DNA methylation in ant development and caste differentiation, discovering the important role of RNA editing for ant social division of labor, and initiating the Global Ant Genomics Alliance with the University of Copenhagen and other global institutes.
He attributes these achievements to the cutting-edge technologies and research platforms developed and provided by BGI-Research. He recalled the beginning of the ant single-cell project when Dr. Liu Longqi, Chief Scientist of Single-Cell Omics, Director of the Cell Science Research Institute at BGI-Research, asked him if he had any suitable species to test the team's new single-cell transcriptome technology. "Initially, I was thinking, well, why not give it a shot? However, to our surprise, the results came out really good, and from there, we created the first whole-brain cell atlas of a 'superorganism.'"
The transition from solitary to superorganismal life form like ants is one of the major transitions in the evolution of life on Earth, an area of research that Dr. Li and his team are deeply committed to exploring. Their latest research delves into another major transition, the origin of multicellular animals. They demonstrate that the ADAR enzyme-mediated RNA editing mechanism is a crucial evolutionary innovation of multicellular animal ancestors, after investigating the genomes and transcriptomes of more than twenty different species that were sampled from the major phyla of extant metazoans as well as their closest unicellular relatives.
“It was hard,” Dr. Li recalled the research process, “one of the difficulties was to collect samples of various representative species around the world - some were not easy to collect on the first try.” In addition, how to identify RNA editing sites of each species comprehensively and accurately was also a very big challenge.
To complete this work, Dr. Li's team developed RES-Scanner, an RNA editing site detection software, which has now been updated to version 2.0.
Apart from making exciting discoveries, he also won the trust and friendship of partners of science, he said, “we have made connections with many fellow scientists in the project, and some of whom became friendly collaborators.”
As a graduate student advisor, he offers advice to young people aspiring to become scientific researchers. He encourages them to pursue a field that they enjoy, to be persistent, and to maintain a positive attitude when faced with setbacks. For those who haven't yet found their calling, he said there's no need to be anxious and recommends laying a solid foundation through practice and building up experience.
“And always keep learning, keep thinking, and keep exploring. You will find that your youth was well-deserved.”