Scientist Echo Pan is using the tools of CRISPR-Cas to deliver a gut punch that heals, rather than harms.
Pan, a Ph.D. candidate and Rockey Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) Fellow at North Carolina State University, hopes that her research will aid the development of highly customized and efficient probiotics that restore the gut microbiome and enhance human health.
Her cutting-edge research comes as scientists gain new insights into the crucial role of the microbiome — all the bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses that live on and inside the human body — in supporting key functions, such as digestion and a strong immune system.
Pan is developing new CRISPR-Cas tools to facilitate gene editing in bacterial organisms that are recalcitrant to genetic manipulation but play important roles in microbiome health. The organisms also have significant industrial applications. Other aspects of Pan’s research include using CRISPR-Cas to study the interaction of microbiomes with viruses to enable microbiome resistance against virulent phages and employing bacterial strains for vaccine delivery.
Pan’s research involves building relationships with industrial partners who can translate her findings to consumers. For example, she currently collaborates with a company interested in using Bifidobacterium — microbes that naturally exist in breast milk and break down human milk sugars— in infant formula to more closely mimic the composition of breast milk.
“The goal is to develop a tool that people can use to do genome editing in Bifidobacterium…to showcase it’s versatile, it’s efficient, it’s reliable,” Pan explained.
Pan credits her mother for raising her with a work ethic that contributes to her tenacity in conducting research that can often be grueling and exacting.
“It’s not always pretty or glamorous getting your Ph.D., doing genome editing, contributing to the next generation of science,” she said. “When you get down to the daily grind it can be very tedious and very exhausting, and you need to have that vision, that sense of purpose to carry you on.”
Originally from China, Pan came to the United States to attend high school at the age of 16. When it was time to decide a college major, Pan knew that she wanted to study something in the sciences. After participating in a semester-long introduction to food sciences, she found her place in a major that allowed her to uncover the intricate and complex design of the food that occupies the shelves in grocery stores.
“The fact that you can have safe Lunchables on the shelf for three to four months is a miracle,” she said. “There’s so much effort and science that goes into ensuring that our food is safe and delicious.”
Following a long journey from China to the US in pursuit of her academic aspirations, Pan is no stranger to adversity. She holds deep gratitude for her mother, whom she cites as her biggest inspiration. With her father away for work, it was just Pan and her mother at home. Pan notes that it required a huge leap of faith and sacrifice for her mother to encourage her to pursue her studies abroad.
Now Pan is relying on her own lifetime of cultivated perseverance as she seeks to leverage the power of CRISPR/Cas systems to improve bacteria for applications in human health and industry.
Pan said she is still guided by her mother’s example as she faces the challenges of a woman conducting research in a male-dominated field.
“As a young scientist I am watching people around me, especially women, balance their lives,” she said. “I realize how many sacrifices she made for me in order to have a good upbringing. She made professional sacrifices, but she never gave up her own identity. This is very uncommon in Chinese culture and it is very inspiring to me in my own life.”