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Jennifer Kan, postdoctoral researcher at the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology, provides an overview of the exciting new possibilities that could arise as researchers utilize bacteria to create silicon-carbon bonds.

Kan’s research and interest lies at the intersection of science and engineering. Kan is excited about her work as a postdoctoral scholar in the laboratory of Frances Arnold, the first woman to be awarded the $1.1 million Millennium Technology Prize, for her groundbreaking work on directed evolution. Directed evolution is a process that allows for the creation of desired traits within enzymes. According to scientific findings, silicon and carbon are quite similar in regard to their chemistry, with both maintaining the capability to produce extended chains of molecules, such as DNA and proteins.

Kan talks about the lab’s work and mission: to engineer proteins to do incredible things that have not been seen in nature. Via directed evolution, researchers have used a bacterium to create a silicon-carbon bond in a natural manner, which previously had only been accomplished synthetically. She states that while silicon is the second most abundant element on our planet, for some reason living organisms have never integrated silicon into their native biochemistry. But in the lab, Kan says it is possible for proteins to activate this chemistry. Interestingly, this groundbreaking discovery may have cleared a path toward integrating computer chips with the human body, though Kan stresses that potential possibility is a long way off in the future, so for now we’ll still have to experience this in Hollywood movies only.

The researcher and biochemistry expert states that silicon is extremely prevalent in our lives and products and that it is truly the core element that makes modern life possible. Kan discusses the benefits of binding silicon to carbon, and how that bond is crucial for the manufacturing of materials that are necessary in our world. She explains the incredible significance of this new development in science—utilizing biology to make these bonds—and how it can open the door to programming life.

Kan states that scientists must ask the right questions, in regard to biological systems, in order to analyze and discover their potential with respect to chemistry.
The lab’s work could create a seismic shift in how medicine and materials are manufactured and produced. Kan feels that there will be a number of valuable applications for this work, for many reasons, two of which are cost reduction, and the newer process is better for the environment compared to the old way of making silicon bonds.

Kan explains how their work involves creating metabolic pathways, convincing bacteria to use the silicon-containing building blocks to create things that are potentially useful for biology. She discusses the many possible uses for this scientific achievement, notably—the use of bacteria to create silicon-containing drugs. She talks about the incredible environmental benefits and how this process can diminish the need for the use of toxic chemicals.

The chemistry expert talks about some of the other innovative uses of their silicon bonding work. She outlines the possible molecules that could be experimented with in her lab, and how the introduction of new elements can literally change functionality. Kan details some of the complexities of the chemical processes and elements, and what her lab’s team hopes to find as they dig deeper into the bonding experimentation. Additionally, Kan lays out their schedule and timeline for this new, exciting work, and talks about their latest publishing and interesting findings. Now that they can actually see what is happening within the proteins, Kan hopes that soon they will be able to complete the story so to speak, and more fully understand how silicon bonds can be made in proteins.

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