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Dr. Kiana Aran Receives Prestigious NSF Career Award

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has granted its most prestigious award in support of junior faculty, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, to Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) Assistant Professor Dr. Kiana Aran.

The NSF CAREER award is given to promising scientists early in their careers and recognizes “outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.” This award will support Aran’s research and education activities at KGI.

Aran’s project, “High bandwidth nano-transistors to understand the kinetic basis for CRISPR/CAS enzymes to enhance their applications for diagnostics and therapeutics,” will receive $549,509 in funding over five years.

The goal of Aran’s CAREER project is to develop a single-molecule high-speed nano-electronic platform to better understand the function of CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-associated enzymes known as “molecular scissors.” These enzymes allow gene editing and have revolutionized many basic and applied research areas. The knowledge gained will be beneficial for many applications in CRISPR engineering, pharmaceutical drug discovery, clinical diagnostics, and agricultural science.

“This project will promote early research involvement and mentorship opportunities to a new generation of engineers and scientists pursuing a career of interdisciplinary research intersecting modern biology, nanotechnology, and engineering,” Aran said.

Aran’s scientific career vision is to explore the utility of nano-electronic systems to develop transformative and customizable biosensing platforms for pharmaceutical, clinical, and environmental applications. As part of this vision, this project focuses on the integration of CRISPR with single-molecule graphene field-effect transistors (gFETs) to gain a better understanding of these enzymes’ functions at a molecular level.

The platform provides unique electronic signatures representing the molecular interactions that happen concurrently between the CRISPR and target DNA/RNA at different timescales. The CRISPR-Cas system is a family of RNA-guided enzymes that is widely used for gene editing, as it is capable of double-stranded DNA binding and cleavage, producing insertions and deletions (INDELs) at specific loci within the genome in vivo.

The application areas of CRISPR technology are rapidly extending beyond genome editing to include uses such as targeted gene regulation, in vivo imaging, and epigenetic modulation, as well as nucleic acid detection for diagnostic applications.

“Our goal is to provide a tool to better understand the biology of CRISPR-Cas enzymes and the impact of CRISPR-Cas mutagenesis, as well as genetic variation on these enzymes’ function,” Aran said. “The applications of the single-molecule gFET platform can be expanded for understanding the molecular interactions of other enzymes beyond CRISPR.”

In addition to her role at KGI, Aran is the co-founder and chief scientific officer at Cardea Bio Inc. In spring 2019, she published the paper “Detection of unamplified target genes via CRISPR–Cas9 immobilized on a graphene field-effect transistor,” which was featured on the cover of Nature Biomedical Engineering. The research illustrated the combination of graphene-based biology-gated transistors with CRISPR-dCas9 molecules to scan genomes for genetic sequences of interest. 

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2048283. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.