Four New Single-Cell Genomics Techniques Track Cell Development of Whole Organisms

For developing four new techniques that more efficiently profile the RNA molecule expression in millions of single cells in worms, mice and humans, and that map which genes are turned on and off throughout cell development, Junyue Cao is awarded the Grand Prize of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists 2020. In difference from previous methods, Cao’s technologies can track the formation of individual cells as they arise into whole organisms, without needing to isolate each cell.

We all benefit from advances in life sciences. It improves our health, treats our diseases and enhances both our well-being and the living world around us. And in the midst of the global Covid-19 pandemic, the need for research in life sciences is more evident than ever, and with that, the need to provide encouragement and strong research environments that allow scientists to stay at the forefront.

As of that, SciLifeLab and the internationally renowned journal Science choose to globally highlight and encourage prominent young life science researchers by annually awarding the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists to four recent PhDs. By promoting them early in their careers, Science and SciLifeLab aims to give them a unique opportunity to succeed further in their respective fields.

The 2020 edition is the eight time the prize is awarded and while the physical celebrations are cancelled this year, due to the pandemic, the winners will be highlighted online, and celebrated through an award ceremony with SciLifeLab and Science/AAAS representatives.

“It’s an honor for SciLifeLab to host this prize together with Science and Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation. The four young investigators awarded the prize have done remarkable breakthroughs in their research. They’ve also shown substantial skills in being able to communicate their science clearly to a broader audience and condense it in a short essay. We’re thrilled to award them this prize and believe they’re very likely to become future leaders in their fields”, says Olli Kallioniemi, Director of SciLifeLab.

Junyue Cao.

Junyue Cao received his PhD in Genome Sciences from the University of Washington and today, he is an assistant professor at the Rockefeller University. He won the Grand Prize in the category of Genomics, Proteomics, and Systems Biology Approaches for his work with single cell genomic methods that enables developmental mapping of entire organisms. 

”As the cell is the basic functional unit of our body, we need to characterize each cell’s state and dynamics comprehensively to understand the development process. However, one significant challenge is that there are millions of cells in mammalian tissues, and the cell number is much higher than the throughput of current single-cell profiling methods”, Junyue Cao says.

“To get over these challenges, I developed four techniques. Compared with conventional single-cell profiling methods that can only profile several hundred or thousands of cells, these techniques increase the throughput to millions of cells, with only one tenth of the cost compared with commercial techniques. They don’t need any special equipment, meaning almost any lab in the world can use them in their research, and the framework can be applied to a broad range of biological systems or disease models”, Junyue Cao continues.

“These approaches can bring new understanding of embryonic development and also of the cellular changes that cause disease,” said Valda Vinson, editor at Science, in a press release from Science.

Orsi Decker.

Orsi Decker, who is currently at La Trobe University in Australia, where she also received her PhD, is the category winner of Ecology and Environment for her work on understanding Australia’s loss of native digging mammals and the subsequent consequences for the continent’s arid soil health. Currently, she is examining how restoration efforts could be improved to regain soil functions via introducing soil fauna to degraded areas. 

”I think it’s important to realize that we need to conserve natural habitats as intact as possible to gain, or re-gain, ecosystem functions, where most interaction between species are crucial in order to maintain a balance. My results also show how important it is to determine the roles or functions of species and how those functions can change depending on the habitat type we are in. This might help in identifying key goals in restoration projects and help land managers in localizing missing ecosystem functions from a restoration area and find possible solutions to restore those functions with natural processes”, says Orsi Decker.

Dasha Nelidova.

Dasha Nelidova is currently a postdoctoral researcher at the institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology in Basel, Switzerland. She is the winner of the category Molecular Medicine and is working on the development of new therapies for treating retinal diseases that lead to blindness. This through the novel approach of expressing mammalian or snake TRP channels in light-insensitive retinal cones. She earned her PhD in Neurobiology at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research.  

”I’m very honored to receive the prize. It will help us to further accelerate the design and development of novel therapies to treat blinding diseases”, says Dasha Nelidova.

William Allen is granted the award for his work in the category of Cell and Molecular Biology, for revealing the neural basis of thirst motivation by bridging multiple levels of brain function. He received his PhD in Neurosciences from Stanford University in 2019 – and is today developing and applying new approaches to map mammalian brain function and dysfunction over an animal’s lifespan – as an independent Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard University.   

William Allen.

”The approaches I developed can be applied throughout many areas of neuroscience, to understand the neural basis of a variety of behaviors. I hope that in the future it becomes routine to build detailed functional maps of activity throughout the brains of animals performing a variety of behaviors, and combining these functional maps with structural maps of the molecular and cellular composition of the underlying neural circuits. Bridging these levels of understanding will allow us to understand how properties of the fundamental units of the brain — neurons — conspire to produce emergent phenomena like thought and behavior”, William Allen says.

More information:

If you want to schedule an interview with one or more winners, please contact: Karin Nedler (Communications Officer at SciLifeLab),, +46 (0) 70 292 56 37

About the Prize

The Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists is an international award established in 2013 by SciLifeLab and Science magazine, aimed at rewarding life science researchers at an early stage of their careers. Recent PhDs are invited to submit an essay based on their doctoral dissertations. The essays are  reviewed by a jury from Science, in terms of both scientific quality and the ability to communicate the research to a wider audience. A winner from each of the following categories is selected; Cell and Molecular Biology; Ecology and Environment; Genomics, Proteomics and Systems Biology; and Molecular Medicine. A Grand Prize winner is selected from the four category winners, rewarded with US $30,000 and his or her essay published in Science magazine. The category winners receive $10,000 each and their essays are published in Science online. The Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists is made possible through the kind support of the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation.


Last updated: 2020-11-20

Content Responsible: David Gotthold(