Kevin Esvelt, PhD

2004 Hertz Fellow
Kevin Esvelt
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An Oregon native, Kevin transformed an early interest in paleontology into a passion for the life sciences. At Harvey Mudd College, he majored in chemistry and biology with an additional focus on unicycling and hang gliding. Supported by a Hertz/NSF Fellowship in the laboratory of David Liu at Harvard, Kevin developed Phage-Assisted Continuous Evolution (PACE) to rapidly evolve new molecular tools. Whereas traditional directed evolution relies on the experimenter laboriously creating new generations of candidate molecules, he devised a means of harnessing the fastest-evolving pattern in nature, the bacteriophage, to continuously evolve proteins and nucleic acids toward desired functions in vivo. By linking phage evolutionary success to the desired molecular activity, PACE can achieve dozens of rounds of molecular evolution in a single day without researcher intervention.

As a Technology Development Fellow of the Wyss Institute, Kevin has focused on merging the fields of molecular biology and ecological engineering. He has developed several key technologies utilizing the RNA-guided CRISPR/Cas9 nuclease for genome engineering and regulation in collaboration with George Church’s laboratory. Most notably, he has outlined how CRISPR might be used to build RNA-guided gene drives capable of spreading almost any genomic alteration through populations. It may allow us to deliberately alter the traits of wild organisms and therefore reshape ecosystems. For example, gene drives might be used to render mosquito populations unable to transmit malaria or dengue, genetically control or eradicate populations of invasive species, and reverse the evolution of pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds. Other projects involve combining phages with Cas9 to stably engineer microbial ecosystems and employing horizontal gene transfer for population genome engineering. Finally, he is working to ensure that gene drives and other powerful self-propagating biologics are employed in an transparent, responsible, and well-regulated manner.

Graduate Studies

Harvard University
A System for the Continuous Directed Evolution of Biomolecules

Undergraduate Studies

Harvey Mudd College


2004, Graduate Research Fellowship Program, National Science Foundation
2010, Hertz Thesis Prize, Fannie & John Hertz Foundation
2016, TR35, MIT Technology Review
2017, Director’s New Innovator Award, National Institutes of Health
2018, Sloan Research Fellow, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Related News

Aug 10, 2020
During the Hertz Foundation’s 2020 Summer Workshop, Hertz Fellows came together to shed light on the effects of COVID-19 on the nation's healthcare system and discuss new solutions that could offer up some relief amidst the throes of the global pandemic.
Oct 27, 2017
Hertz Foundation Fellows Recognized with 2017 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, Transformative Research Award and Early Independence Award; Hertz Fellow Edward Boyden is the Most Honored Investigator with Five Awards Since 2007
Aug 29, 2017
Hertz Fellow Seeks to Improve Gene-Editing Safety, Efficiency and Reversibility to Prevent Unwanted Proliferation of Gene Drives
Feb 7, 2017
In a previous article on Kevin’s research, "Directed Evolution Drives Hertz Fellow Kevin Esvelt to Find Solutions to Vector-borne and Parasitic Diseases", this article is a follow-up on Kevin’s progress of real-world application of using CRISPR and his public policy outreach on open-community driven science with the community of Nantucket Island, in order to help find a solution to nearly eliminating their Lyme disease problem.
Dec 21, 2015
Hertz Fellow and evolutionary biologist Kevin Esvelt has identified a general way to combat vector-borne and parasitic scourges such as malaria, schistosomiasis, and dengue by altering entire populations of these wild organisms. The technique, called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene drive, is an example of directing the natural process of evolution so that the resultant changes can benefit humanity for generations to come. Recently appointed as an assistant professor of the MIT Media Lab, Dr. Esvelt will lead the new Sculpting Evolution research group to explore ecological and evolutionary engineering.