Feng Zhang, 33
MIT | Synthetic Biology
Graduate school: Stanford
Like every other 12-year-old who saw the movie Jurassic Park, Feng Zhang was awestruck by the dinosaurs. He was even more amazed by the power of molecular biology.
Now, two decades later, Zhang has developed tools to harness some of that power by controlling cells for specific purposes. As a graduate student at Stanford, he found ways to insert the gene of a light-sensitive protein found in algae into nerve cells.
The method, now part of the field known as optogenetics, made it possible to control brain cells in mice with laser light. More recently, Zhang has developed a system to easily and precisely “edit” genomes.
Watch an interview with Feng Zhang. MIT TechTV
Zhang holds appointments at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and is an investigator at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Born in China, he moved to Des Moines, Iowa, at age 11. A year later he saw Jurassic Park during a Saturday class on molecular biology. Zhang’s teacher noticed his excitement and later helped him get a volunteer position in a local lab that was researching gene therapy. Throughout high school, Zhang went to the institute every day after school and worked with molecular biologists, an experience that shaped his interest in biology.
After high school, Zhang studied chemistry and physics at Harvard, “fields that serve as a foundation for medicine,” he says. He also worked in two biology labs, focusing on the structure and manipulation of viruses.
“People were using viruses as delivery vehicles to put genes into patients, so I was very interested in learning about viruses,” he says.
Zhang also became interested in neuroscience. He completed his graduate work with Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth who, along with Ed Boyden, was developing a method for studying the brain by controlling its activity with light.
After graduate school, Zhang set out to find more efficient ways to introduce light-sensitive proteins into specific cells. In 2013, he developed a gene-editing tool that employs the DNA-cutting microbial enzyme Cas9 to snip or swap sections of DNA exactly where needed. The tool is simpler to use than other gene-editing techniques, and Zhang’s group has made it widely available.
By altering cells in mice to mimic the mutations found in human patients, Zhang’s group is exploring autism spectrum disorder and related conditions. His aim? Better treatments, powered by molecular biology.