Somsakul Wongpalee, Ph.D.




50th Anniversary building, Room 720, Faculty of Medicine

Research interest

My lab studies virulence factors of a highly pathogenic bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei (Bp.) using molecular biology and structural biology. Bp. is an intracellular pathogen that invades into host cells, propagates and spreads to adjacent cells. Many virulence factors have been identified–including those that involve in intracellular life cycle and spreading. We focus on characterizing functions of 2 essential factors: BsaN and VgrG5.

BsaN is a master transcriptional factor that coordinates many virulence genes, such as those involved in type 3 and type 6 secretion systems, which are required for virulency. How this protein recognizes DNA targets and which factors involve during that process remain unknown.

In contrast to BsaN, VgrG5 is regarded as a weapon of Bp. Functioning as a part of type 6 secretion system, the protein is used by Bp. as a needle to puncture host cells during intracellular spreading. Intriguingly, the protein contains a mysterious C-terminal domain that is unique to Burkholderia spp. Bp. lacking this domain becomes avirulent. My lab is thus focusing on characterizing a molecular function of this domain using structural biology approach.

Besides the two proteins, my lab is developing a new technology to detect Bp in melioidosis patients. We are using CRISPR-Cas12a (and -Cas13a) to identify Bp. infection. If successful, this CRISPR-based technology will prove to be a simpler and highly sensitive tool for diagnosis.

Short biography

Dr. Wongpalee, Pop in short, was a recipient of the DPST scholarship (Development and Promotion of Science and Technology talent project of Thailand). After graduated from high school, he won the Royal Thai Scholarship to study biology in the United States. Pop attended the University of Virginia (UVa) as an undergrad where he conducted a thesis which led to a discovery that a non-coding RNA can regulate cell cycle in cancer cells. Pop received a B.S. degree in biology with the highest distinction from UVa before moving on to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) for graduate school. There, he was trained in the laboratory of professor Douglas Black, a well-known scientist in the RNA field. During this time, Pop was focusing on characterizing the mechanism of splicing site pairing across intron and the assembly of exon definition complex, using reconstituted spliceosomal complexes and quantitative mass spectrometry. In addition, at UCLA, Pop was named the winner of 2014 Paul D. Boyer teaching award, which recognizes excellence in teaching among graduate students, and in 2015, he was awarded a Ph.D. degree in molecular biology.  Afterward, Pop moved across the campus and joined a laboratory of professor Steven Jacobsen, a renown plant epigeneticist, as a post-doctoral scholar. Pop’s passion for ribonucleoprotein (RNP) complex motivated him to delve into investigating how plant RNA-directed DNA methylation (RdDM) works at molecular level. In collaboration with professor Hong Zhou, he determined cryoEM structures and plausible assembly pathway of the DDR complex, a protein complex essential for initiating RdDM.

After 14 years in the U.S., Pop returned to Thailand and assumed a faculty position at the department of microbiology, faculty of medicine at Chiang Mai University. His laboratory focuses on studying molecular aspects of an endemic bacterium, Burkholderia pseudomallei, a causative agent of melioidosis. Pop also strives to educate medical and graduate students on cutting-edge life science knowledge beyond traditional curriculum textbooks.

Field of research

Molecular biology, Structural biology, CRISPR diagnosis

Current projects

1) Molecular characterization of a transcription factor BsaN

2) Molecular characterization of a transcription factor VgrG5

3) Development of CRISPR-Cas12a based assay for detection of B. pseudomallei

4) Development of CRISPR-Cas12a based assay for detection of S. suis

Scopus publications

Research Highlight

Dr. Wongpalee explains his most recent research, which involves engineering CRISPR-Cas12a for specific and rapid detection of pathogenic bacteria, Streptococcus suis. His project is funded by the Murata Science Foundation.