Sunday, March 10, 2013

Genetic Engineering

Jennifer Ouellette has a Slate profile of one of the world's most successful genetic engineers, Frances Arnold of Caltech. It's a nice article, though I don't think it really captures how impressive Arnold's work really is.

Cells replicate by dividing in two, but with each replication, small variations creep into the DNA sequence. Rather than waiting for natural mutations, Arnold causes small mistakes to be made when DNA is copied in the test tube. Then she inserts all the mutated copies into living microbes, which translate the genes into proteins. At that point, she combs through the different proteins to find the ones she likes.

Arnold opted for this brute-force approach, running hundreds—even thousands—of experiments with random mutations in the proteins, selecting those with the characteristics she wanted to breed in the second generation and so on over multiple generations. And because microbes reproduce every 20 minutes, it didn’t take billions of years to see the results. “All you have to do is look at antibiotic resistance to understand how quickly biology can adapt,” she says.

She published her first papers on evolutionary protein engineering in the early 1990s in the face of considerable skepticism. A bit of intellectual snobbery may have been in the mix. There is an unspoken hierarchy in academia. It’s a culture that favors curiosity-driven basic research over practical applications, and it draws a fine distinction between science and engineering. “Some people looked down their noses at it,” Arnold admits. “They might say ‘It’s not science’ or that ‘Gentlemen don’t do random muto-genesis.’ But I’m not a scientist, and I’m not a gentleman, so it didn’t bother me at all. I laughed all the way to the bank, because it works.

I was a bit amused by these lines in the story:

... she was one of the only women to apply for a major in mechanical engineering.

Since her chosen major had relatively few requirements, she spent much of her time studying economics, Russian, and Italian—not to mention dalliances with the occasional Italian post-doc.

Because ME is a gut major???