A pinboard by
Jennifer Kan

Postdoctoral scholar, California Institute of Technology


Unlocking the potential of known proteins for functions they don't have in the natural world.

My research draws expertise in chemistry, biology and engineering to repurpose existing biological systems, in particular proteins, for functions that have no precedent in nature. These new capabilities are encoded by DNA and easy to modify, offering innovative, sustainable, and cost effective solutions to challenges we face in our human world. For example, we recently discovered that living organisms can bring carbon and silicon together to form bonds – something which can only be seen in sci-fi movies up till now but never in natural biological systems. Through evolution in the laboratory, we enhanced the carbon–silicon bond forming ability of a protein from a bacterium that grows in hot springs in Iceland. This evolved protein can make a range of silicon-containing products with efficiency higher than the best catalysts invented by chemists. Molecules containing carbon-silicon bonds have wide use in pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals, medical diagnostics, coatings and paints, organic LEDS, and more. The potential to use microorganisms to make some of these products in the future is very exciting.