If Prof Angela Belcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gets it right, the future of manufacturing will rest on the shoulders of tiny organisms.
Although she’s probably told the story a thousand times, Prof Belcher still talks with reverence about the shell she cradles in her hand.
The humble abalone, a slimy sea snail that occasionally ends up as someone’s dinner, pulls calcium and carbon from sea water and transforms them into a durable, protective shell. Crusty and dingy on one side, shimmery and alluring on the other, this body armour is 3,000 times stronger than chalk, which is its chemical equivalent.
Abalone shells have inspired Prof Belcher’s work for more than two decades and brought her to the pinnacle of science.
And they have implications for the future of manufacturing, green energy, medicine and science – just for starters.
Prof Belcher’s work unites the inanimate world of simple chemicals with proteins made by living creatures, a mash-up of the living and the lifeless.
She is motivated, she says, by a simple question: “How do you give life to non-living things?”
Like the abalone collecting its materials in shallow water and then laying them down like bricks in a wall, Belcher takes basic chemical elements from the natural world: carbon, calcium, silicon, zinc. Then she mixes them with simple, harmless viruses whose genes have been reprogrammed to promote random variations.
The resulting new materials just might address some of our most vexing problems.
“What drives me is solving important problems,” Prof Belcher says. “I look at what are the important problems: energy, healthcare, water.”
Help from nature
To that end, her work has already led to efficient solar cells and powerful batteries (that she hopes one day will be good enough to run her car); a possibly cheaper, greener way of producing plastics; and a potentially better way to peer into deeply buried tumours in the breast and abdomen. This summer her lab started a water purification project.
Prof Belcher is far from the only scientist trying to solve important problems with help from nature. There are glues inspired by gecko feet, robots designed to mimic bugs, and myriad other examples.
The distinctiveness of Prof Belcher’s work, colleagues say, lies in her use of biology to synthesise new materials for such a wide range of uses, to develop an entirely new method for producing entirely novel materials.
“Her methodologies for directing and assembling materials I think will be unique,” says Yet-Ming Chiang, an MIT professor who collaborates with Prof Belcher on battery research. “I think 50 years from now, we’ll look back on biology as an important part of the toolkit in manufacturing… we’ll look back and say this is one of the fundamental tools we developed in this century.”
In her element
Nature has done an amazing job of making materials that create and feed themselves with readily abundant, non-toxic resources. But it took a long time to get good at this stuff. The big explosion of diversity of life started 500 million years ago, in the Cambrian period, and took 50 million years.
As Prof Belcher jokes with a straight face, it’s hard to convince funders and graduate students to sign on for a 50-million-year-long project.
Angela Belcher can be a quite funny person, particularly in her speeches – although you have to pay close attention to realise she’s just made a joke.
She doesn’t signal ahead of time that it’s coming, or even crack a smile when it does. It’s almost as if she’s checking to see if you’re really paying attention.
One of her favourite things to talk about in speeches are the periodic tables she hands out to incoming freshmen at MIT each year. “Welcome to MIT. Now you’re in your element,” they proclaim. She gave one to President Barack Obama when he toured her lab last year. “He promised to look at it periodically,” she tells crowds.
The periodic table is more than a prop for Prof Belcher, though. It’s also her muse. Abalone genes code for proteins that call pull calcium and carbon from the sea; diatoms, a type of phytoplankton, do the same with silicon to make their own glass “houses.”
Prof Belcher is now in the process of throwing viruses together with different elements from the periodic table to see what she can make.
Putting evolution to work
Instead of waiting 50 million years, she’s speeding up the evolutionary process by running 1 billion experiments at a time. She starts with a billion viruses, harmless to everything except bacteria, that have been genetically altered so they each create slightly different proteins.
These viruses are mixed together with whatever elements Belcher has chosen from the periodic table – and out of the billion different proteins the viruses make, roughly 100 will link up with the elements the way she wants. Further testing narrows the candidate proteins down to a handful that have promising capabilities.
The viruses are the factories producing the material – their genes are programmed to link the organic and inorganic – but they are not present in the final product, so there’s no potential risk of viruses running amok, says Prof Belcher.
She’s found a few candidate viruses that can link methane and oxygen to form ethylene, a building block of plastics, fertilizers and tires. This ethylene assembly line can take place at room temperature, using natural gas, which is low polluting and abundant; current production requires lots of energy from high-pollution fossil fuels.
“There is some poetic justice in that we’re using nature’s techniques to be better stewards of the resources nature gave us,” says Alex Tkachenko, president of Siluria Technologies, a small San Francisco start-up that Belcher founded to commercialise the process.
“Angie’s technology is literally like ‘Project God,'” says Mr Tkachenko. “You can produce materials the way nature makes them, so you can essentially remake the whole world in the way you like it.”
Just 43 years old, Prof Belcher is already at the pinnacle of science.
The mother of two boys – one and four years old – she is a full professor at MIT, supporting the work of roughly three dozen students. She was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant, has been named a Time Magazine climate change “hero”, and won every major award for young scientific innovators.
In addition to doing research and starting companies, she still teaches undergraduates, and rarely turns down a speaking request, whether to potential donors or school girls.
To say Prof Belcher has wide-ranging scientific interests is an understatement. At MIT, she works in the departments of Materials Science and Engineering as well as Biological Engineering – but her official title is Professor of Energy, and she sits in a new building designed for cancer researchers.
“Even in a place like MIT where you can’t walk down the hall without running into someone famous, she stands out for her scientific vision and scientific bandwidth and ability to touch all areas of the community,” says Prof Chiang.
Another colleague, engineering professor Paula T. Hammond, describes Angela Belcher as “the ultimate creative thinker.”
“She does not get stuck or fenced in by other people’s definitions or commonly accepted attitudes,” says Prof Hammond. “She does not think ‘within’ a field, but beyond fields, allowing her to make connections between nature, medicine, energy, etc.”
Prof Belcher does not seem to dwell on her accomplishments or the compliments of her colleagues. She’s also not interested in changing the world in 50 years – she wants to do it now.
“We like to dream, but we also like to build things that can be integrated into people’s everyday lives,” Belcher said. “Everything to me is a material – material for cancer or material for energy doesn’t matter.”