Environment

Our Lives, Our Laureates: Frances Arnold

"I compare it to an intricate and elegant symphony, a Beethoven symphony, that we do not yet know how to write."

"As I say when you look at the biological world, when engineers look at the biological world, many of us are awe struck by how biology has recruited simple chemicals to do very complicated things, things that humans cannot design.  The genome encodes all these functions.

It’s a little four letter alphabet that when strung together encodes so many capabilities that we would love to be able to mimic in the laboratory. We are such a long ways from doing that so we engineer the genome in order to build new biological objects that would solve problems.

But when we go in and try to alter the code so that instead of encoding a bacterium that takes sunlight and carbon dioxide and makes more bacteria, it makes chemicals and fuels that we need, we realize that we don’t know what to compose. We don’t know what is the string of DNA that would do that.

So, I compare this code of life, the product of 4 billion years of trial and error, success and failure, I compare it to an intricate and elegant symphony, a Beethoven symphony that we do not yet know how to write.

We are just learning the rules for this now. We have only been doing it for a very short time, so we should be kind to ourselves but we should all, also realize that we are completely ignorant when it comes to composing something so beautifully functional."

This transript has been edited for clarity.