1 Angela Belcher
Why? It is clean and efficient.
Initial response: “I was called insane.”
When 40-year-old materials chemist Angela Belcher was a child, she wanted to be an inventor. “I would try to build things out of scrap material that we had in the garage,” she says. To her disappointment, everything she made had already been invented. Then, in college, she “fell in love with large molecules” and found a whole new way to build things.
Although Belcher was interested in DNA, the molecules she most loved were proteins. She wrote her doctoral thesis on how abalone grow their rough outer shells and pearl-like inner shells, the main difference between the two being a simple shift in protein sequences. “It’s pretty amazing,” she says. “If organisms like abalone have precise control at a genetic level, I realized it might be possible to program an organism to grow other kinds of material. Why not use genetic information to build a protein that can grow a semiconductor?”
In a series of experiments at MIT, Belcher, working with a team of about 30 students and postdocs, has successfully programmed viruses to incorporate, then grow, a variety of inorganic materials, including nanoscale semiconductors, solar cells, and magnetic storage materials. Separately, she is using yeasts as scaffold organisms because of their ability to grow many different materials. “We look at yeasts as factories,” she explains. “Instead of Budweiser, there’s Nanoweiser.”
Belcher has begun working with the U.S. Army on nanoscale batteries that would weigh a fraction of what current batteries weigh and be woven into a soldier’s uniform. She is also training viruses to “find mistakes in materials and give off a signal.” One possible application: spraying viruses on an airplane fuselage to check for microscopic defects. In addition, the National Cancer Institute is funding Belcher to use viruses to find peptides that can specifically identify cancer cells.
“We have a long way to go,” Belcher says. “But one of the things I like about biology is that you have evolution on your side.”