Institute News Summer 2018 Issue 45

McGovern Scientists Named HHMI Investigators

Ed Boyden and Feng Zhang named HHMI investigators.
Ed Boyden and Feng Zhang named HHMI investigators.

Ed Boyden and Feng Zhang are among 19 top scientists who were named Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigators this May. Both researchers have been instrumental in recognizing, developing, and sharing robust tools with broad utility that have revolutionized the life sciences.

HHMI selects new investigators to join its flagship program through periodic competitions that focus on identifying “people, not projects” that are trail blazers in the biomedical sciences. This new group of investigators, selected from a pool of 675 eligible applicants, is the first to be appointed to a seven-year term (previous terms lasted five years). The organization provides support for an unusual length of time, seven years, with a renewal process at the end of that period, giving selected scientists the time and freedom to tackle difficult and important biological questions.

Boyden’s work initiated optogenetics, along with Karl Deisseroth and Feng Zhang, and subsequently extended it into a multicolor, high-speed, and noninvasive toolbox. Boyden and his team continue to expand the neurobiology toolkit. Their recent developments include expansion microscopy, a system that overcomes the limits of light microscopy, as well as a directed evolution system that can robotically screen hundreds of thousands of mutated proteins for properties, used to develop a high-performance voltage indicator.

Zhang’s achievements include the landmark deployment of the microbial CRISPR-Cas9 system for genome engineering in eukaryotic cells. The ease and specificity of the system has led to its widespread adoption. He continues to mine bacterial CRISPR systems for additional enzymes with useful properties. This search led to the discovery of Cas13, which targets RNA, rather than DNA, as well as the use of Cas13 in a molecular detection system, termed SHERLOCK,which can sense trace amounts of genetic material such as viruses.

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