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Frances Arnold

Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry
California Institute of Technology

Dickinson Professor at the California Institute of Technology, Frances Arnold’s research focuses on protein engineering by directed evolution, with applications in alternative energy, chemicals, and medicine. She has a BS in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from UC Berkeley. Dr. Arnold’s honors include the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in Convergence Research (2017), the Millennium Technology Prize (2016), the Eni Prize in Renewable and Nonconventional Energy (2013), and the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the US National Academy of Engineering (2011), for her pioneering innovations in directed enzyme evolution.  She was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011 and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014. She has also been elected to membership in all three US National Academies, of Science, Medicine, and Engineering, as well as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Prof. Arnold has honorary doctorates from Stockholm University, the ETH Zurich, and the University of Chicago. She chairs the Advisory Panel of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowships in Science and Engineering program and serves as a judge for the Queen Elizabeth Prize in Engineering.

Frances Arnold holds more than 50 US patents and is active in technology transfer.  She is a Director of Illumina and Provivi and has served on numerous science advisory boards. She co-founded Gevo, Inc. in 2005 to make fuels and chemicals from renewable resources and Provivi, Inc. in 2013 to develop non-toxic modes of agricultural pest control.  


"Biocatalysts for abiological chemistry: evolution brings new chemistry to life"

Evolution by natural selection allows organisms to continuously update their catalytic repertoires with useful, new capabilities—think antibiotic resistance or the ability to degrade and grow on manmade compounds.  Humans have used evolution to engineer desirable traits into everything from corn to cats, altering genomes using artificial selection to produce favorable phenotypes; Sol Spiegelman did this with molecules and opened up a whole new frontier for evolutionary design.  My lab directs the evolution of nature’s powerful catalysts, enzymes, to perform functions that may not be useful to a bacterium but are useful to us. Directed evolution mimics evolution by artificial selection, accelerated in the laboratory by focusing on individual genes expressed in fast-growing microorganisms.  

I will talk about bringing new chemistry to the biological world by creating enzymes for reactions not known in living systems. Evolution generates new enzymes using the ‘promiscuous’ activities of existing proteins that become advantageous in a new environment.  We follow the same recipe, identifying activities that may be known to synthetic chemistry but that nature has not yet explored.   We have found that heme proteins are a wonderful source of new biochemistry.  We have engineered cytochrome P450s and other heme proteins to catalyze carbene and nitrene transfer reactions well-known to chemistry but not (yet) found in biology.  It’s fascinating to see that at least some of nature’s vast catalog of proteins can be evolved—with only a few mutations—to catalyze reactions and even create chemical bonds that are unknown in biology. These new biocatalysts can access vast areas of chemical space that life has not explored.


Frances Arnold