The Creativity of Nature:

How One Creative Scientist Harnessed It

By   Shlomo Maital

Prof. Frances Arnold, Caltech

   Frances Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering at California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, CA. She won the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry, along with two others. She is only the fifth woman in history to win the Chemistry Nobel.

   Prof. Arnold has had numerous personal tragedies. She has overcome all the grief – and not a small amount of gender discrimination. UK border police interrogated her for over two hours, when she told them she was “coming to meet the Queen” (she was – but a lot of nutty people say that, apparently).

     Prof. Arnold won the Nobel for finding a creative way to leverage the powerful creative force of evolution. Instead of designing new chemicals from scratch, to fight crop-eating pests, remove laundry stains or clean up oil spills, Arnold figured out how to get Nature to do it.

     “You start with a protein that already has some features you’re interested in”, she said, “ and use standard lab techniques to randomly mutate the gene that encodes the protein. Then you look for slight improvement in the resulting protein, in the direction you seek. You mutate the improved version again and again and screen the output. You do this with a bacterial workhorse, like E. coli….. you encourage the microbes to rise to the challenge, adapt, survive.”

       In Dr. Arnold’s lab, organisms have been ‘mutated’ to stitch together carbon and silicon, or carbon and boron. “We’re discovering that nature can do chemistry, in the lab, we never dreamed was possible”, Dr. Arnold said.    Arnold has invented the new field of evolutionary chemistry – using Nature’s incredibly creative system known as evolution and ‘survival of the fittest’, to create random mutations, select the ones that work, perfect them – and change the world. Nature is creative, in much the same way that humans are – try things, fail, try again, find something that does work and run with it. That is how we humans were created – and according to Darwin, all the millions of species on earth.    

   Arnold has launched a number of startups, including one that synthesizes insect pheromones and fends off agricultural pests by simply driving them crazy and confusing them.

   Much of Dr. Arnold’s pioneering research was done while she fought breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. She underwent surgery, radiation and chemo, all while raising three young boys and working day and night in her lab.   And in 2010 her husband Andrew Lange killed himself; her middle son William, 20, died in an accident in 2016.  

     “Why would I give up?” said Arnold. “First you learn you have no control. Then you straighten up, fetch your invitation and go to meet the Queen.”    

       [This is based on an excellent New York Times article, by Natalie Angier, who writes for the Science Times].

 

 

 

    

 

      

 

       

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