Frances Arnold: Why not learn from the best? We have four billion years of work that went into the chemistry of the biological world. So just looking at it from the chemistry point of view, our whole chemicals industry, our whole lifestyle, is predicated on the need to take abundant starting materials and turn them into our clothing and our packaging and our housing — basically everything that supports our life is done through chemistry. And we do a terrible job at it. Human beings do chemistry very inefficiently, and we’ve managed to pollute the planet at the same time that we provide these products for us.
And I said, “Surely, we can do better than that.” And just look at the biological world for examples of how you can take abundant, renewable starting materials, not oil — sunlight and carbon dioxide, cheap things from the planet — and turn those into the products we need in our daily lives. And the way nature does that is with these protein catalysts called “enzymes.” They convert one form of matter into another and into all of life. And these are the most beautiful, intricate, efficient, selective, non-polluting machines that you can imagine. No human being can master that chemistry. No human being can mimic that chemistry. Only biology can do that. So I said, “I’m going to become an engineer of biology and convince the biological world to take these same abundant starting materials and make the things that I need.”