Molecules with silicon-carbon, or organosilicon, compounds are found in pharmaceuticals as well as in many other products, including agricultural chemicals, paints, semiconductors, and computer and TV screens. Currently, these products are made synthetically, since the silicon-carbon bonds are not found in nature.
The new research, which recently won Caltech’s Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) grand prize, demonstrates that biology can instead be used to manufacture these bonds in ways that are more environmentally friendly and potentially much less expensive.Artist rendering of organosilicon-based life. Organosilicon compounds contain carbon-silicon bonds. Recent research from the laboratory of Frances Arnold shows, for the first time, that bacteria can create organosilicon compounds. This does not prove that silicon- or organosilicon-based life is possible, but shows that life could be persuaded to incorporate silicon into its basic components.
Researchers in Frances Arnold’s lab at Caltech have persuaded living organisms to make chemical bonds not found in nature. The finding may change how medicines and other chemicals are made in the future.
The researchers used a method called directed evolution, pioneered by Arnold in the early 1990s, in which new and better enzymes are created in labs by artificial selection, similar to the way that breeders modify corn, cows, or cats. Enzymes are a class of proteins that catalyze, or facilitate, chemical reactions. The directed evolution process begins with an enzyme that scientists want to enhance. The DNA coding for the enzyme is mutated in more-or-less random ways, and the resulting enzymes are tested for a desired trait. The top-performing enzyme is then mutated again, and the process is repeated until an enzyme that performs much better than the original is created.
Sek Bik Jennifer Kan, Postdoctoral Scholar in Chemical Engineering
Directed evolution has been used for years to make enzymes for household products, like detergents; and for “green” sustainable routes to making pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals, and fuels.
In the new study, the goal was not just to improve an enzyme’s biological function but to actually persuade it to do something that it had not done before. The researchers’ first step was to find a suitable candidate, an enzyme showing potential for making the silicon-carbon bonds.
“It’s like breeding a racehorse,” says Arnold, who is also the director of the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center at Caltech. “A good breeder recognizes the inherent ability of a horse to become a racer and has to bring that out in successive generations. We just do it with proteins.”
The ideal candidate turned out to be a protein from a bacterium that grows in hot springs in Iceland. That protein, called cytochrome c, normally shuttles electrons to other proteins, but the researchers found that it also happens to act like an enzyme to create silicon-carbon bonds at low levels. The scientists then mutated the DNA coding for that protein within a region that specifies an iron-containing portion of the protein thought to be responsible for its silicon-carbon bond-forming activity. Next, they tested these mutant enzymes for their ability to make organosilicon compounds better than the original.
After only three rounds, they had created an enzyme that can selectively make silicon-carbon bonds 15 times more efficiently than the best catalyst invented by chemists. Furthermore, the enzyme is highly selective, which means that it makes fewer unwanted byproducts that have to be chemically separated out.
“This iron-based, genetically encoded catalyst is nontoxic, cheaper, and easier to modify compared to other catalysts used in chemical synthesis,” says Kan. “The new reaction can also be done at room temperature and in water.”
The synthetic process for making silicon-carbon bonds often uses precious metals and toxic solvents, and requires extra processing to remove unwanted byproducts, all of which add to the cost of making these compounds.
As to the question of whether life can evolve to use silicon on its own, Arnold says that is up to nature. “This study shows how quickly nature can adapt to new challenges,” she says. “The DNA-encoded catalytic machinery of the cell can rapidly learn to promote new chemical reactions when we provide new reagents and the appropriate incentive in the form of artificial selection. Nature could have done this herself if she cared to.”