Beckman-Brown Lecture on Interdisciplinary Science

Photo collage of Arnold Beckman and Ted Brown overlaid on the Beckman Institute gates.

The Annual Beckman-Brown Lecture on Interdisciplinary Science honors Dr. Arnold O. Beckman, the founder of the Institute, and Dr. Theodore “Ted” Brown, the founding director. The series is funded by a gift from the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.

New Enzymes by Evolution: Expanding the Scope of Biocatalysis

Portrait of Frances H. Arnold.

Frances H. Arnold, Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology

Monday, September 19, 2016, Noon, Beckman Auditorium. Reception follows presentation.


Not satisfied with nature’s vast catalytic repertoire, we want to create new enzymes and expand the range of chemical reactions that can be genetically encoded. I will describe how we can use the most powerful algorithm for biological design, evolution, to optimize existing enzymes and invent new ones. Mimicking nature’s evolutionary tricks and using a little chemical intuition, we can generate whole new enzyme families that catalyze important reactions not (yet) known in nature, thereby adding new capabilities to the chemistry of the biological world and increasing the scope of molecules and materials we can build. I will show that heme proteins can catalyze an array of increasingly challenging carbene- and nitrene-transfer reactions and that these new activities can be enhanced by directed evolution. These experiments illustrate the mechanisms by which new catalysts have been and will continue to be generated by nature’s innovation machine, evolution.


Recipient of the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize, Arnold’s research focuses on protein engineering by directed evolution, with applications in alternative energy, chemicals, and medicine. She pioneered the ‘directed evolution’ of proteins, mimicking Darwinian evolution in the laboratory to create new biological molecules. Her laboratory has developed methods of laboratory evolution and structure-guided recombination that are used widely in industry and basic science to engineer proteins with new and interesting properties.

Arnold chairs the advisory panel of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation Fellowships in Science and Engineering program, which has awarded more than $300,000,000 to over 500 young faculty. She also serves as a judge for the Queen Elizabeth Prize in Engineering. Arnold’s honors include the ENI Prize in Renewable and Nonconventional Energy (2013), the U.S. National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2011), and the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering (2011). She was inducted into the U.S. National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2014 and has been elected to membership in all three U.S. National Academies, of Science, Medicine, and Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.