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Research award winner focused on future


Shihuan Kuang, associate professor in the Purdue Department of Animal Sciences, is the 2014 recipient of the Agricultural Research Award for his work in stem cell biology and the regulation of muscle and adipose tissues.

The award is the College of Agriculture's highest honor given to mid–career faculty members for excellence in applying scientific principles to solve important research problems. Recipients, through their research, have made significant contributions to agriculture, natural resources and the quality of life of Indiana citizens.

Given every year since 1982, the award consists of a plaque, a $1,500 honorarium and $10,000 for the recipient's research program. Kuang received his award during a May 7 ceremony on campus.

In a rural village in the mountainous Jiangxi province of China, a young Shihuan Kuang would watch as trucks rumbled down the highway and wonder what it would be like to hitch a ride to someplace bigger. It was a hardscrabble life in the rice farming community where he was born.

"There was not much," Kuang said. "We didn't have toys. I just played in the mud with other boys. The ideal was to grow up and go elsewhere."

Shihuan Kuang, the recipient of the 2014 Purdue Agricultural Research Award, has been a member of the Purdue faculty since 2008.

Photo by Tom Campbell

Shihuan Kuang, the recipient of the 2014 Purdue Agricultural Research Award, has been a member of the Purdue faculty since 2008.

As a student, he showed an aptitude for science, math and physics. His father, principal of the local elementary school, encouraged him to push himself academically, and Kuang eventually took the highway out of his hometown to study biology at Nanchang University, where he earned his bachelor's degree. He also earned a master's degree in marine biology from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Kuang spent a handful of years in aquaculture, researching the growth and development of bay scallops, before moving to Canada to pursue a doctoral degree in physiology and cell biology. At the University of Alberta, he became a keen observer of the neural activity of pond snails.

"That was really interesting to me," he said. "We studied why snail larvae swam, why they stopped, how they responded to oxygen levels in the water, how they metamorphosed. We could identify the neurons controlling each kind of behavior."

After working on a research project that traced fluorescent neurons in transgenic mice to their corresponding muscles, Kuang began to concentrate his research on satellite cells, stem cells that contribute to muscle growth and repair in humans. The unspecified nature of satellite cells allows them to become other cell types.

"If you sprain your ankle or run too fast, satellite cells are activated from their dormant state," he said. "A portion of these cells become specified, and they fuse with the muscle to fix the injury."

Kuang discovered that not all the satellite cells are born equal: They are organized into a hierarchy with a few "primitive" cells at the top giving rise to the rest. He showed that primitive satellite cells are more effective at regenerating damaged muscles, opening up new avenues for therapies.

Continuing this line of research at Purdue, Kuang also found that transplanted stem cells survive far better if they are grown in the low oxygen levels native to the human body — a crucial finding for improving the low efficacy of stem cell treatment for muscle–wasting diseases.

The implications of Kuang's muscle stem cell research are not limited to medicine. Meat production in the animal industry depends on satellite–cell–mediated muscle growth, and stimulating the activity of satellite cells can improve the growth efficiency of animals.

Marbling, an important quality trait of meat products, is another aspect that can benefit from stem cell research, because adipose stem cells give rise to fat. Kuang's team at Purdue has mapped the origin of fat cells in the muscle.

"Interestingly, adipose and muscle stem cells frequently 'talk' to each other," he said. "Muscle cells can send messengers that cause the fat to shrink or expand, while adipose stem cells are required for the regeneration of injured muscles."

Fat cells are important for human health as well. Kuang, in collaboration with Harvard University scientists, discovered that brown fat — the heat–producing material that keeps human infants and hibernating animals warm — shares a common ancestor with muscle tissue, not white fat, as previously thought. The study also showed that brown fat can break down the white fat stored in the body, converting it to heat.

"This is potentially a powerful anti–obesity tool," Kuang said. "We're continuing to study how we can make more brown fat and how we can turn muscle or white fat into brown fat."

The discovery was named one of Science magazine's "Top 10 Breakthroughs of the Year" in 2008, the same year that Kuang came to Purdue with his wife, Jun Wu, and sons, Randy and Ranger.

"Dr. Kuang is truly a talented, highly productive scientist," said Alan Mathew, head of the Department of Animal Sciences. "His groundbreaking research into the fundamental questions of stem cell biology contributes immeasurably to agriculture, human health and the well–being of our global society."

When Kuang is not generating research to grace the cover of journals such as Nature and Cell, he fishes, plays cards, makes tofu and bikes from his home to campus. You might spot him pedaling toward his lab, neurons signaling each muscle contraction, eyes trained on the road ahead.

Contact Kuang at

Purdue Agriculture, 615 West State Street,
West Lafayette, IN 47907-2053 USA, (765) 494-8396
© 2014 Purdue University. An equal access, equal opportunity university.

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