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05/05/2008 07:00:00

Caltech Professor Frances H. Arnold Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

PASADENA, Calif.-- Frances H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, an honor considered to be one of the highest accolades in the scientific world. Arnold, the Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry, is also a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, making her one of only eight living individuals to have been elected to all three branches of the National Academies, and the only woman.

Arnold was elected for integrating fundamentals in molecular biology, genetics, and bioengineering to the benefit of life science and industry. Her research has revolutionized protein engineering and its applications to biotechnology, addressing central issues in protein design and the evolution of new biocatalysts.

She is one of the pioneers in the use of "directed evolution" to improve proteins and other biological molecules for commercial applications. Directed evolution applies the principles of breeding, but to molecules rather than animals or plants. Using these methods, Arnold has been able to generate proteins with a variety of useful features, like improved stability and the ability to function in nonnatural environments.

The practical applications of this research are very broad and include making enzymes that can effectively break down cellulose, the key structural component of plant cell walls, which would allow the efficient production of cellulosic biofuels.

"I am thrilled to have this recognition, and validation, of our efforts to use evolution to engineer biology," Arnold says. "At Caltech I have been able to work with great students and colleagues from disparate disciplines, who have helped me find new ways to look at problems. Caltech is both immensely stimulating and very supportive."

"Frances's work has changed the way we think about biological engineering, and her methods have been adopted by hundreds of laboratories around the world. It's a beautiful example of a new idea that proved to be almost immediately applicable to a broad range of fundamental and practical problems," says David A. Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor and professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, and chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Caltech. "We're very proud of what Frances and her students have accomplished."

The National Academy of Sciences is a private organization of scientists and engineers dedicated to the furtherance of science and its use for the general welfare. It was established in 1863 by a congressional act of incorporation signed by Abraham Lincoln that calls on the academy to act as an official adviser to the federal government, upon request, in any matter of science or technology.

The election of Arnold brings the total Caltech membership to 75 faculty and three trustees.

Written by Kathy Svitil