Hoyt C. Hottel Lecture in Chemical Engineering – 2021

Innovation by Evolution: Bringing New Chemistry to Life

Frances Arnold
Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry
California Institute of Technology

Friday, October 1, 2021
3:00 p.m., 10-250
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

[Lecture Video]




Not satisfied with biology’s vast catalyst repertoire, I want to create new enzyme catalysts and expand the chemistry of life. We use the most powerful biological design process, evolution, to optimize existing enzymes and invent new ones, thereby circumventing our profound ignorance of how sequence encodes function. Chemistry encoded in DNA and optimized by evolution enables efficient, sustainable routes to important fuels and chemicals. Evolution not only optimizes, it can also innovate and create entirely new enzyme catalysts. I will illustrate how whole families of new-to-nature enzymes increase the scope of molecules and materials that can be built using synthetic biology.


Frances Arnold is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Arnold pioneered directed enzyme evolution, for which she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018; she has used directed protein evolution for applications in alternative energy, chemicals, and medicine. Arnold was recently appointed to co-chair the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Among other awards, Arnold has received the Charles Stark Draper Prize of the US National Academy of Engineering (2011), the US National Medal of Technology and Innovation (2011), and the Millennium Technology Prize (2016). She has been elected to the US National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering and was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2019. Arnold co-founded three companies in sustainable chemistry and renewable energy (Gevo, Provivi, Aralez Bio) and serves on several public and private company boards. She earned a B.S. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.