Feng Zhang has been elected to join the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a prestigious, non-profit society of distinguished scholars that was established through an Act of Congress signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Zhang is the Patricia and James Poitras ’63 Professor in Neuroscience at MIT, an associate professor in the departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Biological Engineering, an investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Scientists are elected to the National Academy of Sciences by members of the organization as recognition of their outstanding contributions to research.
“Because it comes from the scientific community, election to the National Academy of Sciences is a very special honor,” says Zhang, “and I’m grateful to all of my colleagues for the recognition and support.”
Zhang has revolutionized research across the life sciences by developing and sharing a number of powerful molecular biology tools, most notably, genome engineering tools based on the microbial CRISPR-Cas9 system. The simplicity and precision of Cas9 has led to its widespread adoption by researchers around the world. Indeed, the Zhang lab has shared more than 49,000 plasmids and reagents with more than 2,300 institutions across 62 countries through the non-profit plasmid repository Addgene.
Zhang continues to pioneer CRISPR-based technologies. For example, Zhang and his colleagues discovered new CRISPR systems that use a single enzyme to target RNA, rather than DNA. They have engineered these systems to achieve precise editing of single bases of RNA, enabling a wide range of applications in research, therapeutics, and biotechnology. Recently, he and his team also reported a highly sensitive nucleic acid detection system based on the CRISPR enzyme Cas13 that can be used in the field for monitoring pathogens and other molecular diagnostic applications.
Zhang has long shown a keen eye for recognizing the potential of transformative technologies and developing robust tools with broad utility. As a graduate student in Karl Diesseroth’s group at Stanford, he contributed to the development of optogenetics, a light-based technology that allows scientists to both track neurons and causally test outcomes of neuronal activity. Zhang also created an efficient system for reprogramming TAL effector proteins (TALEs) to specifically recognize and modulate target genes.
“Feng Zhang is unusually young to be elected into the National Academy of Science, which attests to the tremendous impact he is having on the field even at an early stage of his career, “ says Robert Desimone, director of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT.
This year the NAS, an organization that includes over 500 Nobel Laureates, elected 84 new members from across disciplines. The mission of the organization is to provide sound, objective advice on science to the nation, and to further the cause of science and technology in America. Four MIT professors were elected this year, with Amy Finkelstein (recognized for contributions to economics) as well as Mehran Karder and Xiao-Gang Wen (for their research in the realm of physics) also becoming members of the Academy.
The formal induction ceremony for new NAS members will be held at the Academy’s annual meeting in Washington D.C. next spring.