Host for the Chemistry Prize winner: “A true role model”
26 November 2018
Hi there, Lynn Kamerlin, Professor of Chemistry! You are going to play host to Frances Arnold, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, when she visits Uppsala on 13 December. How is your research linked to her research on the evolution of proteins?
“We’re coming from two different directions, but we end up at the same place. Frances Arnold is an engineer and her interests lie in designing new enzymes. She has been awarded the Nobel Prize for having found a way to mimic natural evolution much faster, in a lab environment. That article is almost 30 years old now, but she has continued to design new enzymes and develop better methods. In recent years, she has started to use machine learning and computational methods, so she is still at the forefront of this research.”
“I’m coming from the other direction. I’m interested in the evolution of proteins from a biochemical perspective. So in principle, Frances Arnold and I end up at the same place. But from my perspective, designing enzymes is useful for understanding how they function.”
So you want to understand how enzymes have developed over a long period of time?
“Yes, for example we collaborate with colleagues working with ancestral sequence reconstruction, which looks at modern enzymes and their amino acid sequences and then calculates what their ancestors probably looked like. In principle, they can reconstruct sequences for enzymes that are one billion years old. Once we have the sequence, we can build this structure in the lab and conduct studies.”
Does this research have many applications?
“Yes, particularly what Frances Arnold is doing. We are interested in enzymes that break down plastic, which is a huge environmental problem. We are also using artificial enzymes to create biofuels and for cleaning up chemicals in the environment that are extremely difficult to break down. Generally when you think of enzymes in biotechnology, you think of detergents, but there is actually a very broad range of applications for enzymes.”
Have you met Frances before?
“She was here in May at a mini symposium that the Department held, and we had been in contact previously on Twitter. It felt great that I obviously knew who she was, but she knew who I was, too. For me she is a true role model. She is a very strong person and someone I have a great deal of respect for as both a researcher and a person. If someone were to ask me ‘Who do you want to be when you grow up?’ I would point to Frances.”
How does she inspire you as a researcher?
“As a researcher, she is extremely smart and highly skilled at what she does. She has her own style and is prepared to take risks in her research that others perhaps might not have the courage to take. But she does and it works. She has this very strong gut feeling for making the right connections and getting things to work. In addition, she is a woman and a professor in engineering at Caltech, the California Institute of Technology. You have to be very strong to succeed to the extent she has.
“I’ve been troubled and concerned about the lack of women among Nobel Laureates. Women received both the Chemistry Prize and the Physics Prize this year, and that was very gratifying. We must hope that there will be more women Nobel Laureates in the future.”