Already this year, Feng Zhang, a central developer of CRISPR/Cas9 – the latest science to take the industry by storm – has been awarded the USD500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. However, according to the faculty director of the award, Michael Cima of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Koch Institute, Zhang was not awarded just for that.

Born in China on the 22 October 1982 – to computer engineering parents – Zhang moved to Iowa, US with his mother when he was 11. He attended the highly acclaimed Research Science Institute (RSI) where his intellect placed him third place in the Intel Science Talent Search. He has also obtained degrees from Harvard and Stanford Universities – and it was at Stanford where he developed the technology behind optogenetics.

Lemelson was awarded “for his track record of innovations and of coming up with big ideas that change fields,” says Cima. “Zhang is one of those individuals who moves through groups of talented people sparking new ideas. It seems like everything he embarks on leads to an explosion of innovation.”

Image of Feng Zhang. Photo credit: Katherine Taylor/STAT
Image of Feng Zhang. Photo credit: Katherine Taylor/STAT

Zhang’s journey with CRISPR/Cas9

Currently a professor of neuroscience at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and in the departments of brain and cognitive science and biological engineering at MIT, Zhang’s lab is actually focused on developing genomic technology to study some of the worst brain diseases in both animal and human stem cell models.

He is especially interested in complex disorders that are caused by multiple genetic and environmental risk factors and which are difficult to model. His work on genome editing began in 2010 when he discovered TALENS, the first method to target specific genes. It was in 2012 that he published his ground-breaking paper on the first, successful and programmable genome editing technology, CRISPR/Cas9.

In 2015, he refined the technology to develop /Cas9-Cpf1; and in 2016, he founded CRISPR/C2c2 to target RNA. His ability to provide defining solutions appears to stem from his ability to mix together information from a multitude of areas. “When I’m listening to someone or reading something, I always think, is there a way I can apply what I heard or read to one of these questions?” he said.

Feng Zhang: Not just a scientist, also a humanitarian

Yet, a large part of the reason Zhang was honoured, is because of how much he gives back to his field. Zhang’s support for open science means he makes information from his research freely available to other researchers through the non-profit, Addgene. This information includes copies of genetic and other biological material. “If Addgene didn’t exist, my lab would get no other science done,” Zhang says.

Indeed, Zhang is one of the most popular members of Addgene. Of the 208 pieces of information he has added to the platform, 42,000 copies have been sent to scientists in 65 countries. In fact, even Jennifer Doudna from the University of California, Berkley, with whom Zhang is locked in a bitter patent battle, credits a plasmid added by Zhang to Addgene as what they used to discover that CRISPR/Cas9 can target RNA too.

Before Addgene, Zhang and his team really struggled to send DNA research to labs around the world. Photo credit: Broad Institute/STAT
Before Addgene, Zhang and his team really struggled to send DNA research to labs around the world. Photo credit: Broad Institute/STAT

Aside from this, Zhang also hosts regular workshops on genome editing. “He doesn’t just publish a paper and put [details of what he did] in the methods section,” iterates Cima. Zhang has said he plans to use some of his award money to invest in science education.

The Lemelson is just one of Zhang’s awards from a repertoire that includes the National Science Foundation in America’s highest honour, the Alan T Waterman Award, the prestigious Gairdner Foundation International Award and the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award also in America. Given the breadth and depth of his work, they are all very much deserved. MIMS

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