Alumni Dr. Yan Shao Published His Research Paper as First Author in the Journal Nature



2011 — attended Imperial College London.

2014 — received First Class Honours degree in Biology; became member of the Royal Academy of Sciences; interned at world-leading research institutions such as John Innes Centre UK, The Sainsbury Laboratory and Shenzhen BGI Research Institute.

2015 — received a full scholarship to support his four-year study for PhD at the University of Cambridge; joined the Wellcome Sanger Institute — one of the world’s top three genome sequencing research centres — to conduct research on human microbiomes, where he published five articles on top academic journals including Nature and Nature Biotechnology.

When we were still celebrating our 2012 alumnus Genyi Meng’s discovery of a revolutionary high-throughput click-chemical compound library and his publication of an influential scientific paper in the journal Nature, we were acknowledged almost at the same time that our 2011 alumnus, Dr. Yan Shao, also published his research paper as first author in the same issue.

The paper explains that the research team Yan Shao is in has conducted the largest and most accurate study of neonatal intestinal microbiota to date, by high-throughput genome sequencing and analysis. They provided strong evidence for different birth patterns playing decisive roles in the development of intestinal microbiota in the early stages of life. The team hopes to help prevent and improve conditions of malnutrition in third world countries through gut microbiome research, to end the prevalence in obesity among children in developed countries, as well as to prevent asthma, allergies and other autoimmune diseases.


After being published on Nature‘s website on September 18th, British standard time, this article dominated the front pages of major mainstream media in the UK and all around the world immediately. Within the past month, the article has been downloaded for more than 37,000 times, and has ranked top 1% in the Altmetric index for paper influence evaluation across all Nature articles of the same issue (4/484) and all scientific articles (23/174,693). In the meantime, domestic Chinese websites, including Xinhua News Agency and popular science and technology media, reported this research as well (links are posted at the end). On October 3rd, the article was officially published in Nature magazine, volume 574, issue 7776.

Now, let’s take a look at the young scientist’s path to study and research

Q: Could you share with us your scientific experiences after high school?

I became an undergraduate of the Life Sciences Department at Imperial College London in 2011. The intense academic atmosphere and the research-heavy teaching curriculum at my alma mater helped me cultivate strong scientific research literacy during those years, which was reflected in thorough reading of cutting-edge literature, writing of papers, reviews and research programmes, as well as hands-on research practice in laboratories.

In my first two summers in university, I received full funding from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation in UK and was screened for research and training programmes. I had the privilege of working with scientists who I’ve only seen in “textbooks” at John Innes Centre and The Sainsbury Laboratory in the UK, the world’s leading institutes in microbiology and plants, respectively.

After graduating from Imperial College in 2014, I received an internship opportunity from BGI Research Institute and thereby returned to Shenzhen. While gaining industrial working experiences, I also learned techniques in bioinformatics and mass data analysis. These valuable experiences not only taught me how top scientific research results are made and “refined”, but also allowed me to find the research orientations that intrigued me the most- Microbe-host interactions and Genomics.

In 2015, I received a full scholarship from the Wellcome Trust, one of the world’s largest charitable foundations, to begin a four-year Ph.D. study at the University of Cambridge. I also entered Sanger Institute, “the Holy Land” for Genomics Research, to conduct research on human intestinal microbiome. To be specific, my research project is to study the emergence of gut microbiome during early human developing stages and its relationship to allergies such as asthma in the later stages of life using large-scale genome sequencing and high-throughput bacterial isolation culture techniques.

Q: Could you explain your research and discoveries in this paper to us in more details?

In fact, only about half of the cells in our bodies are human cells, and the other half represents micro-ecosystems of hundreds of millions of microorganisms and viruses that spread across various organs. The largest and most complex microbiome habituates in the human gut, and is most closely related to our metabolism and immune system. Many studies have shown that the body’s gut microbiome can develop disorders when affected by diet, antibiotics, stress, etc., and may trigger cancer, obesity, bowel inflammations and other diseases. However, in the first few weeks of an infant, how does the intestinal micro-ecosystem complete the developmental process from nothing to a huge and complex one? What factors affect the development of the baby’s intestinal microbiota? Are developmental defects in infant intestinal flora the causes of later autoimmune diseases (e.g. asthma, allergies)?

With these questions in mind, our team and collaborators conducted a large-scale birth cohort study (starting in 2012, mass recruitment and sampling in 2015) that lasted for 7 years and published one of our major findings in Nature. In this article, we conducted the largest and most accurate study of neonatal intestinal microbiota to date, by high-throughput whole genome-sequencing and analysis. We provided strong evidence that different birth patterns play a decisive role in the development of intestinal microbiota in the early stages of life.

We found that in the case of eutocia, babies “inherited” many gut bacteria from the mother’s faeces when they were squeezed through the mother’s vagina. This type of mother-to-child transmission of bacteria is not only beneficial to intestinal health, but also the “backbone” during the development of the intestinal microbiota in the early stages of life. Nevertheless, during caesarean procedures, we found that this “inheritance” from the mother’s gut microbiota was almost completely destroyed. Surprisingly, babies born by caesarean procedures not only permanently fail to get beneficial gut bacteria from their mothers, but also carry a very high percentage of potentially pathogenic bacteria common in hospital environments. As for the disorder of intestinal microbiota after caesarean procedures and the impact of carrying large numbers of pathogenic bacteria on their health, pay close attention to our next clinical study.

Q: What would your future research orientation be?

After completing my Ph.D. (I’ve recently successfully finished my graduation dissertation), I will stay with the current research team for the next year or two to complete more work that will be published. At the same time, as global citizens, we will cooperate with researchers from low and middle-income countries, with budgets from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to conduct large-scale cohort studies of infant intestinal microbiota in Africa and Latin America.

In the near future, I will visit collaborators in Kenya, South Africa and Uruguay for academic exchanges and communication of knowledge. We hope that through gut microbiome researches, we can help prevent and improve malnutrition conditions in poor countries, as well as end the obesity epidemic among children in rich countries and prevent asthma, allergies and some autoimmune diseases.

We sincerely congratulate our alumni to have made such great discoveries and attained outstanding achievements in the field of scientific research. It is your dedication and perseverance that contribute to the world’s development of science and technology and bring well-being to human life.

You are the people who changed and will change the world! SCIE, your alma mater, is proud of you and will always be!

(Translation / Ginny 16213, Kennya 16225, Wendy 4158)

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