2016 Grand Prize Winners
Jennifer Kan, Russell D. Lewis and Kai Chen
Sustainable BioCatalytic Carbon-Silicon Bond Formation
Our winning team is comprised of Russell (Rusty) Lewis, a graduate student in Bioengineering, Kai Chen, a graduate student in Chemistry, and Jenny Kan Ph.D. a postdoctoral scholar in Chemistry & Chemical Engineering–All members of Frances Arnold’s diverse and highly collaborative research group.
Drawing on their expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering, the team developed a biocatalyst capable of carbon-silicon bond formation. Specifically, they discovered that heme proteins could produce organosilicons via carbene insertion into silicon-hydrogen bonds, a transformation that has no precedent in natural biological systems.
Conventional methods for the synthesis of organosilicon compounds are limited in their efficiency, selectivity, and sustainability. As these materials have wide use in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, medical diagnostics, coatings and paints, organic LEDS, and more, this new biocatalytic approach to organosilicon chemistry offers powerful new solutions to the global challenge of sustainable chemistry.
The team’s iron-based biocatalyst is renewable, biodegradable and non-toxic. It can also be produced very cheaply by fermentation using well-established recombinant protein expression technology. It functions in water, at ambient temperature and at neutral pH, both in vitro and in whole E. coli cells, making it the first biocatalyst capable of carbon-silicon bond formation and the first iron-based catalyst ever reported for this transformation.
Furthermore, the biocatalyst outcompetes the best synthetic catalysts known for this class of reaction in terms of cost, operational ease, catalyst efficiency and environmental impact. And, since the engineered enzymes are fully genetically-encoded, assemble and function in cells, the new chemistry can be integrated with metabolic pathways to utilize renewable resources such as biomass for creating new organosilicon products.