Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Gene Hackers

 CRISPR’s unprecedented ability to edit genetic
code will make possible a new generation of
medical treatments.    Credit Illustration by Todd
St. John
At thirty-four, Feng Zhang is the youngest member of the core faculty at the Broad Institute of Harvard and M.I.T. He is also among the most accomplished. In 1999, while still a high-school student, in Des Moines, Zhang found a structural protein capable of preventing retroviruses like H.I.V. from infecting human cells. The project earned him third place in the Intel Science Talent Search, and he applied the fifty thousand dollars in prize money toward tuition at Harvard, where he studied chemistry and physics. By the time he received his doctorate, from Stanford, in 2009, he had shifted gears, helping to create optogenetics, a powerful new discipline that enables scientists to use light to study the behavior of individual neurons.

Zhang decided to become a biological engineer, forging tools to repair the broken genes that are responsible for many of humanity’s most intractable afflictions. The following year, he returned to Harvard, as a member of the Society of Fellows, and became the first scientist to use a modular set of proteins, called TALEs, to control the genes of a mammal. “Imagine being able to manipulate a specific region of DNA . . . almost as easily as correcting a typo,” one molecular biologist wrote, referring to TALEs, which stands for transcription activator-like effectors. He concluded that although such an advance “will probably never happen,” the new technology was as close as scientists might get.

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