Broad core member awarded National Science Foundation’s highest honor

Leah Eisenstadt, April 10th, 2014
  • Feng Zhang
    Photo by Len Rubenstein

Broad Institute core faculty member Feng Zhang has been named the 2014 recipient of the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation. The award, named after the NSF’s first director, is the agency’s highest honor, which annually recognizes an outstanding researcher under the age of 35. Zhang’s award will help support his work to understand how the brain works.

Zhang seeks to understand the molecular machinery of brain cells — and how it goes awry in disease — through the development and application of innovative technologies. He created and is continuing to perfect tools that afford researchers precise control over biological activities happening inside the cell. With these tools, researchers can deepen their understanding of how the genome works, and how it influences the development and function of the brain.

Two different lines of fundamental research and technology development are helping him do that: optogenetics and genome engineering. With Edward Boyden and Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University, he developed optogenetics to study brain circuits, a technique in which light is used to alter signaling and gene expression of neurons involved in complex behaviors. Zhang has also developed enzymes from the bacterial immune system known as CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindrome repeats) to "edit" animal genomes — that is, to identify and cut a short DNA sequence underlying a disorder so that it may be deleted or substituted with other genetic material. Although Zhang’s main area of focus is the brain, the potential applications of CRISPR technology extend well beyond neuroscience.

“This is an immensely exciting time for the field because of the tremendous potential of tools like CRISPR, which allows us to modify the genomes of mammalian cells,” Zhang said in an announcement from the NSF (link to release). "One of my long-term goals is to better understand the molecular mechanisms of brain function and identify new ways to treat devastating neurological disorders.”

Zhang joined the Broad Institute in 2010 as a core faculty member. He is also an investigator at MIT's McGovern Institute for Brain Research and the W. M. Keck Career Development Professor with a joint appointment in MIT's Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering.

Zhang is widely recognized for his pioneering work in both optogenetics and genome editing. He shared the Perl/UNC Neuroscience Prize with Karl Deisseroth and Edward Boyden in 2012. In 2013, MIT Technology Review recognized him as a "pioneer" and one of its 35 Innovators Under 35; Popular Science magazine placed Zhang on its Brilliant 10, an annual list of the most promising scientific innovators, honored for brilliance and impact. Nature also named him as one of the “ten people who mattered” in 2013 for his work on developing the CRISPR system for genome editing in mammalian cells.

For more on Zhang’s work, see these Broad news stories:

Genome Engineering Gets CRISPR from January 9, 2013

LITE illuminates new way to study the brain from July 23, 2013

Five questions for Feng Zhang from September 17, 2013

CRISPR system scales up in human cells from December 12, 2013