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Interview with the Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, Frances Arnold

“Enzymes are everywhere”

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Prof. Frances Arnold hält einen Vortrag im Audimax der TU Dortmund. © Oliver Schaper​/​TU Dort­mund
Frances Arnold: „I really enjoy training enzymes to do new chemistry.“

The Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry, Frances Arnold, is considered to be a pioneer in the field of directed evolution. In an interview with the Office of University Communications of TU Dort­mund University, Ms. Arnold explained how she breeds enzymes that do not occur naturally and how the human race can benefit from her research.

In a few words: What is it that you do as a scientist?
Frances Arnold: I breed molecules, proteins and enzymes like people breed cats and dogs. 

Could you explain shortly what directed evolution is?
Frances Arnold: Directed evolution means artificial selection applied to the DNA that encodes interesting molecules like proteins. So I breed them by deciding how to recombine the DNA, how to mutate the DNA, and then who goes on to parent the next generation. How can your research be used for everyday life?
Frances Arnold: This is useful for solving all sorts of interesting problems in chemistry. Enzymes catalyze reactions; they make one form of material turn into another form. And they do it cleanly, sustainably; they use cheap renewable materials to make things that we find useful in our lives. They reduce energy, they reduce waste. There are also advantages of using enzymes in laundry detergents; they take stains off of clothes at low temperature. There are enzymes used in cosmetics, textiles, wine and beer making – enzymes are everywhere!

How did you find your way into the field of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry? What is it that you found fascinating and interesting about it in the first place?
Frances Arnold: I didn’t choose this field in the beginning; I came into it on a zig-zag path. My first degree was in mechanical and aerospace engineering. I worked in the solar energy arena after the oil crises in the 1970s. But political forces in the United States made solar energy not very attractive for the future – that republican Reagan administration was not interested in solar energy – so I went into chemical engineering. A lucky pivot, because that was the beginning of the DNA revolution. I studied enzymes for the first time when I was 25, 26 years old, and I fell in love with them – and decided I wanted to become an engineer of the biological world.

Group photo of two women and two men in a large auditorium full of people. In front of them there is a very large green "TU" logo sculpture. © Oliver Schaper​/​TU Dort­mund
Prof. Ursula Gather, Rector of TU Dort­mund University (2nd from left), Prof. Stephan Lütz, Dean of the Faculty of Biochemical and Chemical Engineering, and his colleague Prof. Andrzej Górak (left) welcomed Frances Arnold at TU Dort­mund University.

Could you tell us what you are working on at the moment?
Frances Arnold: For example, using enzymes to catalyze reactions not even known in nature, that neither a human nor the biological world has been able to catalyze. I really enjoy training enzymes to do new chemistry and seeing how quickly they can learn how to do completely new chemistry.

If we look into the future: What will directed evolution be able to do in five or ten years’ time?
Frances Arnold: I hope that people will use it to invent new biological processes that can replace toxic chemical processes.You have worked for the “Science & Entertainment Exchange” program of the National Academy of Sciences. Could you tell us a bit about that?
​​​​​​​Frances Arnold: That’s a volunteer organization. I live in Los Angeles, and that’s the center of the entertainment industry. What we’d like to do is see science and scientists portrayed in a realistic and positive way in entertainment. Because that reaches a lot of people, has a big influence on young people. We hope that science will be portrayed in a way that makes it attractive to learn science.

So it’s like an advisory board for filmmakers?
Frances Arnold: It’s anything that screenwriters want to know about. For example if a screenwriter wants to know whether this synthetic biology project is at all feasible, they can come to Caltech [California Institute of Technology], talk to my graduate students and get an idea of what seems realistic versus what is just a complete fairy tale.

You are only the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. What is your piece of advice for young women who want to be researchers?
Frances Arnold: Do it!

A full lecture hall. © Oliver Schaper​/​TU Dort­mund
More than 950 people came to hear Arnold’s lecture at TU Dort­mund University on 24 May 2019.

On Frances Arnold: Frances Arnold is the Linus Pauling professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for her research on directed evolution. She was honored for her work in the field of enzyme research. Enzymes start and speed up chemical reactions and are used in the production of chemicals of all kinds, such as fertilizers or medication.

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Location & approach

The campus of TU Dort­mund University is located close to interstate junction Dort­mund West, where the Sauerlandlinie A 45 (Frankfurt-Dort­mund) crosses the Ruhrschnellweg B 1 / A 40. The best interstate exit to take from A 45 is "Dort­mund-Eichlinghofen" (closer to Campus Süd), and from B 1 / A 40 "Dort­mund-Dorstfeld" (closer to Campus Nord). Signs for the uni­ver­si­ty are located at both exits. Also, there is a new exit before you pass over the B 1-bridge leading into Dort­mund.

To get from Campus Nord to Campus Süd by car, there is the connection via Vogelpothsweg/Baroper Straße. We recommend you leave your car on one of the parking lots at Campus Nord and use the H-Bahn (suspended monorail system), which conveniently connects the two campuses.

TU Dort­mund University has its own train station ("Dort­mund Uni­ver­si­tät"). From there, suburban trains (S-Bahn) leave for Dort­mund main station ("Dort­mund Hauptbahnhof") and Düsseldorf main station via the "Düsseldorf Airport Train Station" (take S-Bahn number 1, which leaves every 20 or 30 minutes). The uni­ver­si­ty is easily reached from Bochum, Essen, Mülheim an der Ruhr and Duisburg.

You can also take the bus or subway train from Dort­mund city to the uni­ver­si­ty: From Dort­mund main station, you can take any train bound for the Station "Stadtgarten", usually lines U41, U45, U 47 and U49. At "Stadtgarten" you switch trains and get on line U42 towards "Hombruch". Look out for the Station "An der Palmweide". From the bus stop just across the road, busses bound for TU Dort­mund University leave every ten minutes (445, 447 and 462). Another option is to take the subway routes U41, U45, U47 and U49 from Dort­mund main station to the stop "Dort­mund Kampstraße". From there, take U43 or U44 to the stop "Dort­mund Wittener Straße". Switch to bus line 447 and get off at "Dort­mund Uni­ver­si­tät S".

Dort­mund Airport offers flights to several destinations in Central Europe. There are regular connections to Katowice, Kraków, London and Munich. For the approximately 20km-trip from Dort­mund Airport to TU Dort­mund University, you can use a shuttle bus to the railway Station "Bahnhof Holzwickede", from which trains depart to Dort­mund main station (please visit Verkehrsverbund Rhein-Ruhr for more in­for­mation). Normally, the fastest way is to catch a taxi at Dort­mund Airport.

The H-Bahn is one of the hallmarks of TU Dort­mund University. There are two stations on Campus Nord. One ("Dort­mund Uni­ver­si­tät S") is directly located at the suburban train stop, which connects the uni­ver­si­ty directly with the city of Dort­mund and the rest of the Ruhr Area. Also from this station, there are connections to the "Technologiepark" and (via Campus Süd) Eichlinghofen. The other station is located at the dining hall at Campus Nord and offers a direct connection to Campus Süd every five minutes.