“Would you call me a synthetic biologist?” Frances Arnold asks me. Yes, I reply. “Then I’m happy to be a synthetic biologist.”
That’s how my conversation concluded with Frances Arnold, a Caltech professor who is a mechanical and aerospace engineer and a chemical engineer by training. Her success in engineering biology to create better enzymes for everything from sustainable biofuels to better ways of making drugs earned her the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018. It led many people like me to wonder: Is this the first Nobel Prize in synthetic biology?
Arnold’s work to modify the chemical pathways inside biological cells started before such “metabolic engineering” was recast by some as “synthetic biology.” In those days, synthetic biology was often described as putting biological parts together like Legos.
“It was pretty clear even back then when people were talking about standardized parts, that was a gross oversimplification of biological complexity,” Arnold says. That’s because a part might work one way in one kind of cell, but may not work at all in another cell. “There is no such thing as a standardized part. But the idea that you could engineer and become better at engineering biology — there we’ve clearly made a lot of progress.”
Arnold’s work is clear evidence of that. And her approach to engineering biology relies on letting nature do what it does best: evolve.
Life — the biological world — is the greatest chemist, and evolution is her design process. – Frances Arnold, Caltech Professor and Nobel Laureate
“Life — the biological world — is the greatest chemist, and evolution is her design process,” explained Arnold in her Nobel Lecture. Through that process, Nature has come up with chemistry that no human has yet matched. Arnold pioneered a bioengineering method that lets biology evolve the best enzymes for a given task and condition. The process is called directed evolution of enzymes, and it works similar to the way dog breeders breed specific dogs to encourage desired traits.
Arnold is sometimes asked: How can your research be used to help people?
“Everything I’ve been working on for the last 30 years is my way of getting to a sustainable economy,” she says. “We have to be much more like nature in using renewable resources to make the materials and energy we need in our daily lives.”
Arnold is an ardent environmentalist with a clear mission to make our human activities more sustainable.
“I’ve spent my entire career putting in place the technologies that will make that happen. But those technologies won’t get used unless there’s support from the government, industry, and policymakers to make sure that the real costs of the way we’re currently behaving… get incorporated into the price of our products. I’m working on the technology side, and I hope to be working in concert with all of those other sectors to make this possible.”
Making your laundry eco-friendly
Up to 80% of your washing machine’s energy use comes from heating the water. But cold water wash is the way to go these days, thanks to engineered enzymes. Enzymes are the proteins that carry out chemical reactions, such as breaking down grass stains, oil smudges, armpit marks — you name it. Your laundry detergent contains eight or more enzymes, all designed to do the work that hot water used to. So do yourself and the planet a favor: set your wash cycle to “cold” and let engineered enzymes save energy and expense with every load.
Going from academia to the real world
Making truly useful products means getting her ideas out of the lab into the real world, and Arnold has started several companies to do just that. In 2004, she founded Gevo to make renewable fuels for jets, trucks, and cars. It is also using its technology to make renewable bioplastic bottles, flavors and fragrances, and bio-based industrial chemicals.
Provivi is another company she co-founded. It has come up with a clever biological strategy to avoid pesticides. “Provivi makes insect pheromones that confuse male bugs,” she explains. “This disrupts the mating of agricultural pests, leading to higher-quality crops with less use of pesticides.” Provivi recently expanded its Series B funding to $36.5 million to make these non-toxic replacements for pesticides.
Creativity in synthetic biology… can lead to big improvements in the way that we make fuels and the way that we look at agriculture.
“I think those are two excellent examples of where creativity in the synthetic biology and chemistry side of things can lead to big improvements in the way that we make fuels and the way that we look at agriculture.”
Arnold’s latest company, Aralez Bio, makes direct use of engineered enzymes to expand the scope of valuable products that can be produced bio-renewably. Only 2% of the world’s chemicals are produced bio-renewably, according to its data. Aralez Bio aims to improve that figure by using biology to achieve the same versatility and efficiency of traditional chemistry — minus the usual energy, greenhouse gases, and waste.
Bonding tech with bio
In a supreme expression of “tech meets bio”, the Arnold lab has even been able to teach microbes how to stitch together carbon, the stuff of life, along with silicon, the stuff of computers. Nature has never before been able to do that.
“We didn’t even have to nag the protein too hard to get it to do it,” said Jennifer Kan, a postdoctoral scholar in Dr. Arnold’s lab who performed the experiments, to the New York Times.
If you’ve ever done this, you’ve benefitted from organosilicon bonds. Thanks to enzyme engineering, making these products in the future will probably rely more on fermentation-like biological processes, rather than toxic industrial chemistry. Getty
The organosilicon industry is massive, Arnold says. Carbon and silicon bonds go into thousands of products that we use in our daily lives, including sealants, adhesives, coatings, herbicides, and fungicides.
“What I want to do is demonstrate that biology can learn how to make a vast array of molecules that people thought were outside the realm of biology,” says Arnold. “My feeling is that we can genetically encode almost any kind of chemistry. We just have to learn how to do that.”
Arnold is the first woman to win the National Academy of Engineering’s flagship award, the Draper Prize, and only the fifth woman in 117 years to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She views herself modestly as a role model for others.
“For me, I was always the only woman in my cohort, first as a mechanical engineering undergraduate student, then as a chemical engineering graduate student. There were very few women getting degrees in those fields at the time,” she says. “My role models were men — great men role models.”
“Doing science at the highest level is hard for anyone,” she elaborates. “It’s hard for women, and it’s hard for the men. And we need to have supportive mentors and role models we can look up to.”
Acknowledgment: Thank you to Kevin A. Costa for additional research and reporting in this post.
Note: I am the founder of SynBioBeta, the innovation network for the synthetic biology industry. Hear more about synthetic biology’s impact on drug development and more at SynBioBeta 2019, October 1-3 in San Francisco. Some of the companies that I write about are sponsors of the SynBioBeta conference (click here for a full list of sponsors).