Brian Chow, associate professor in the Department of Bioengineering, is an expert in optogenetics, a field in neuroscience that combines the power of optical control with the precision of genetic techniques to manipulate biological systems. This broad area is significant due to its potential in neurobiology, as well as understanding other complex biological systems.
Chow earned his B.S. in Chemistry from Stanford University in 2001, and his Ph.D. from M.I.T. in 2008. For his dissertation, Chow developed nanofabrication technologies to build devices directed toward biomedicine and synthetic biology. Chow’s Ph.D. work with Joseph M. Jacobson in the M.I.T. Media Lab was an evolution of his work in nanotechnology as an undergraduate at Stanford. He developed new DNA synthesis techniques via semiconductor photoelectrochemistry, and high-resolution surface modification techniques for next-generation sequencing platforms.
For his postdoctoral work, Chow moved into neuroscience by joining Edward Boyden’s lab at M.I.T., where he pursued a long-standing passion of using broad engineering and genomic technologies for problems in neurobiology. Through his postdoctoral research, he sought to engineer a protein that would silence neurons in a network when exposed to light.
Using a clever genomic screening approach across plants, fungi and bacteria, Chow identified the most promising natural light-activated proton pumps to hyperpolarize cells. In the neuroscience community, finding the ideal proton pump was considered an impossible task, as nearly everyone thought activating the pump on the neuron would cause pH imbalances within the cell that would not be survivable. But Chow’s work, later published in Nature, proved there are natural variants that are safe for the neuron, can switch neurons completely off (unlike in previous tools), and offer fast switching times in the millisecond time scale.