Frances loves to walk and travel. When she wants to escape her world, she goes to a cabin she owns in the San Gabriel Mountains in California.
It has no running water or electricity, and can only be reached on foot along a six-kilometer trail through the forest, up the mountain.
The scenery is humbling:
“We can’t hold a candle to the beauty and complexity of nature. A single protein defies our understanding, yet is so beautifully functional.”
A few days later, she hikes back down to the California Institute of Technology. There, Dr. Frances Arnold is known as the “pioneer of directed evolution.”
Photo Credit: New York Times
Arnold and her team work with microbes to produce enzymes and peptide bonds similar to those only humans could make, once upon a time. These bioengineered enzymes can then catalyze all sorts of reactions; they can be used to make biofuels, pharmaceuticals, laundry detergents…
It all began when she went to Berkley to pursue her graduate studies. It was the cusp of the biotech revolution; she fell hard for biochemistry. She already had degrees in mechanical, aerospace, and chemical engineering, but nature, she realized, was the ultimate chemist:
“No human can design a good enzyme, yet we are surrounded by them after 3.5 billion years of work by evolution.”
Evolution, she observed, could be harnessed by science to develop solutions to humanity’s chemical problems. By copying nature’s design process – genetic change and selection – proteins could be developed in laboratories to produce renewable fuels, fight disease, and create chemicals that were environmentally friendly.
This process of imitating nature, this “directed evolution,” is not a new phenomenon; humans have been using it for centuries. In agriculture, it has led to the production of seeds that yield better crops, more resilient plants, and fruits and vegetables in countless variety. In the animal breeding, the prominence of desired traits like fertility and resilience.
Arnold reasoned: If dog breeders could mate certain dogs to bring out favorable traits, could enzymes not be coaxed to mutate till they perform certain functions?
She tried, experimenting with an enzyme called subtilisin. She wanted it to accelerate change in an organic solvent. Three generations of evolutionarily directed mutations later, it worked! She produced an enzyme more than 200 times more effective than the first.
Arnold’s work catapulted the entire field of bioengineering forward. This year, it receives the ultimate recognition: the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She shares it with two other chemical engineers: George Smith and Gregory Winter, whose work has also focused on harnessing the power of evolution.
She is the fifth woman to win that prize in its 117-year history. One of her illustrious predecessors is none other than Marie Curie. With the female prize winners in Physics, that total rises to only eight, but there will be more,
“as long as we encourage everyone — it doesn’t matter the color, gender; everyone who wants to do science, […]”
The possibilities are limitless, both for women in science and directed evolution, this Arnold-sparked revolution that is making our world better.