How Feng Zhang Modified A Cell’s Genome On The Fly
His techniques could be used to study the genetics of autism and schizophrenia.
Each year, Popular Science_ seeks out the brightest young scientists and engineers and names them the Brilliant Ten. Like the 110 honorees before them, the members of this year’s class are dramatically reshaping their fields–and the future. Some are tackling pragmatic questions, like how to secure the Internet, while others are attacking more abstract ones, like determining the weather on distant exoplanets. The common thread between them is brilliance, of course, but also impact. If the Brilliant Ten are the faces of things to come, the world will be a safer, smarter, and brighter place.–The Editors_
Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Broad Institute
Modifying a cell’s genome on the fly
When Feng Zhang was in graduate school, he discovered that the tools for splicing new genes into living cells were costly, time-consuming, and proprietary. Unhappy with that reality, he did what any enterprising open-source enthusiast would do—he made his own tools and shared them with other scientists. They dramatically sped up the study of genetics and disease.
The techniques Zhang helped develop, called TALE and CRISPR, create transgenic or otherwise genetically modified organisms with unprecedented efficiency. TALE is a molecule that gloms onto a section of DNA and affects whether a nearby gene is turned on or off. CRISPR is based on a microbial enzyme that snips the DNA to introduce new genetic material. Using these methods, Zhang can make a transgenic mouse in three weeks (normal methods require more than six months to achieve that feat). Almost 2,000 labs have requested information about CRISPR alone since it was first cited in a publication in January 2013. “These technologies are so fundamental, it’s best to keep them as open as possible,” Zhang says. “If someone had protected the HTML language for making Web pages, then we wouldn’t have the World Wide Web.”
Zhang plans to use the techniques to study the genetics of autism and schizophrenia. He has already begun to insert genes linked to each disorder one by one into animal models to observe their effects. Now that he has the tools, he says, the rest of his work can begin.
Click here to see more from our annual celebration of young researchers whose innovations will change the world. This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Popular Science.