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Mother Nature is her lab partner

La Cañada's Frances Arnold wins engineering's most prestigious prize for her work in 'directed evolution'

March 09, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com
  • Frances Arnold, a researcher and professor of chemical engineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, with lab manager Sabine Bastian. Arnold is the winner of the 2011 Draper Prize for her pioneering work on directed evolution.
Frances Arnold, a researcher and professor of chemical… (Tim Berger / Staff…)

The vehicle for all of life’s variety and complexity has found a new driver in La Cañada’s Frances Arnold.

In her laboratories at Caltech, Arnold is harnessing the evolutionary process to create new proteins and enzymes that have the potential to wean the world off of fossil fuels, advance doctors’ understanding of disease and addiction and solve other pressing social problems.

Like an animal breeder working at the molecular level, Arnold manages the growth and reproduction of microscopic life-forms to reshape them for practical scientific purposes — a yeast that could effectively convert plants into jet fuel or plastics, for instance, or a microbe with the power to help map the human brain.

For her pioneering work in the emerging field of “directed evolution,” Arnold was earlier this year awarded the prestigious Draper Prize, an honor established by the National Academy of Engineering that carries the scientific clout of a Nobel Prize. Arnold shared that award — and split its $500,000 in prize money — with Willem Stemmer, who has used directed evolution to develop advanced biopharmaceuticals. In previous years, Draper Prizes have gone to inventers of the global positioning system (GPS), architects of the Internet and developers of the turbojet engine.

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A uniquely diverse scientific career path helped Arnold, also a mother of two teen boys who attend La Cañada High School and a son serving in the armed forces, make the link between evolutionary biology and renewable energy research.

After studying mechanical engineering at Princeton, Arnold went to work on the development of solar energy collectors at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado. When federal research funding priorities changed after President Reagan succeeded President Carter, Arnold became interested in biofuels research and obtained a doctorate in chemical engineering at UC Berkeley, where she was also exposed to emerging breakthroughs in DNA research. She arrived at Caltech in 1986, and has lived in La Cañada for 10 years.

Outside of her research at Caltech, Arnold has founded a now publicly traded company that taps directed evolution techniques to produce an ingredient for renewable fuels.

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