King-Wai Yau, Ph.D.

Headshot of King-Wai Yau
  • Professor of Neuroscience

Research Interests

Pupil constriction; Photoreceptors; Retinal ganglion cells; Light-signal transduction; Retinal rod and cone cells; Olfaction; Vision; Molecular neuroscience; Cellular neuroscience more


Dr. King-Wai Yau is a professor of neuroscience and ophthalmology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Yau’s research focuses on the flow of molecular signals that are important to sight and smell. His discoveries have helped advance the understanding of many hereditary blinding diseases that affect these rod and cone cells.

Those discoveries include identifying the key roles of two key signaling molecules—calcium and cyclic GMP—in visual transduction, the process of how light is converted into electrical signals by the retina’s rod and cone photoreceptor cells.

In addition to helping to find the cause of a form of central vision loss, Dr. Yau also characterized the light-response behaviors of a newly discovered photoreceptor cell that responds to light and affects circadian rhythms and other non-image-forming visual functions.

Dr. Yau earned his Ph.D. in neurobiology from Harvard University before completing a neurobiology research fellowship at the Stanford University School of Medicine. He completed a second research fellowship in the Physiological Laboratory of England’s Cambridge University. He also holds an A.B. in physics (Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi) from Princeton University. He joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 1986.

A fellow of American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Yau has published well over 100 journal articles. His many professional honors include the National Academy of Sciences’ 2013 Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics and the 2012 Chanchlani Global Vision Research Award. more


  • Professor of Neuroscience
  • Professor of Ophthalmology

Departments / Divisions

Centers & Institutes



  • Ph.D.; Harvard University (Massachusetts) (1975)
  • A.B.; Princeton University (New Jersey) (1971)

Additional Training

  • Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, 1979, Neurobiology; Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, 1980, Physiology

Research & Publications

Research Summary

The Yau Laboratory focuses on the study of sensory transduction – specifically, visual and olfactory transductions, which are the processes by which the senses of vision and olfaction (smell) are initiated.

Investigators are examining topics that include: 

  • The cellular and molecular details that underlie rod and cone phototransduction, with a focus on cones, which have a similar phototransduction mechanism but different quantitative details 
  • The connectivity and physiology of these cells in several mammalian species— including mice and primates—as well as the phototransduction mechanism in newly discovered photoreceptors
  • The steps in the olfactory transduction process


Dr. Yau and his laboratory study visual and olfactory sensory transduction, which have interesting similarities but also striking differences.

Visual transduction in retinal photoreceptors (the rods and cones) is known to involve a cGMP signaling pathway.

Recording from single, dissociated photoreceptors isolated from genetically modified mice and frogs is one assay they use to address specific questions about the details of phototransduction.

Unlike vision, which involves only a few visual pigments in rods and cones, olfaction apparently involves of the order of a thousand distinct odorant receptor proteins.

A key, still largely unknown question about olfactory transduction is how a given odorant receptor protein recognizes a specific set of chemicals (odorants).

Yau Lab investigators are addressing this question by stimulating cloned odorant receptor proteins various odorants, using calcium imaging as an assay.

Lab Website: King-Wai Yau Laboratory

Selected Publications

Do MT, Yau KW. “Adaptation to steady light by intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells.” Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Apr 30;110(18):7470-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1304039110. Epub 2013 Apr 15.

Pearson RA, Barber AC, Rizzi M, Hippert C, Xue T, West, EL, Duran Y, Smith AJ, Chuang JZ, Azam SA, Luhmann UFO, Benucci A, Sung CH, Bainbridge JW, Carandini M, Yau K-W, Sowden JC, and Ali R. “Restoration of vision following transplantation of photoreceptors.” Nature, in press.

Xue T, Do MTH, Riccio A, Jiang Z, Hsieh J, Wang HC, Merbs SL, Welsbie DS, Yoshioka T, Weissgerber P, Stolz S, Flockerzi V, Freichel M, Simon MI, Clapham DE, and Yau K-W. Melanopsin signaling in mammalian iris and retina. Nature 2011;479:67-73.

Luo DG, Yue WW, Ala-Laurila P, Yau K-W. “Activation of visual pigments by light and heat.” Science 2011;332(6035):1307-12. Cheng N, Tsunenari T, and Yau K-W. “Intrinsic light sensitivity of retinal horizontal cells of teleosts.” Nature 2009;460, 899-903.

Academic Affiliations & Courses

Graduate Program Affiliation

Neuroscience Graduate Program

Biochemistry, Cellular and Molecular Biology Graduate Program

Activities & Honors


  • Beckman-Argyros Award in Vision Research, Beckman Foundation, 2019
  • Helen Keller Prize for Vision Research, ARVO, 2019
  • Alcon Award in Vision Research, Alcon Research Institute, 2005
  • Alcon Award in Vision Research, Alcon Research Institute, 1994
  • Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1995
  • Friedenwald Award, Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology, 1993
  • Nathan S. Greenfield Lecturer, Case Western Reserve University, 2012
  • Chanchlani Global Vision Research Award, CNIB, 2012
  • Magnes Prize, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1996
  • Investigator, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 1986 - 2004
  • Balazs Prize, International Society for Eye Research (ISER), 2006
  • Teacher of the Year, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 2004
  • Alexander Hollaender Award in Biophysics, National Academy of Sciences, 2013
  • Member, National Academy of Sciences, 2010
  • MERIT Award, National Institutes of Health, 1992 - 2002
  • António Champalimaud Vision Award (Inaugural Research Award), Portugal, 2008
  • Ruth and Milton Steinbach Award, Steinbach Foundation, 2004
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