Angela Belcher—MacArthur “genius” award winner and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—originally found inspiration in abalone. She came across one of the creatures’ iridescent shells while earning her Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and became fascinated with how nature creates such a beautiful object without high pressure, heat, or chemicals. The answer: Abalones contain proteins that help them turn the minerals found in seawater into calcium carbonate.
Belcher, 43, thought that if abalones could do it, so could her lab. She’s spent much of her career since then genetically engineering a type of virus known as bacteriophage to build materials similar to how abalones build their shells. “She can solve problems that nature never even tried to solve,” says Frances Arnold, a professor at California Institute of Technology. “Once you bring in the whole periodic table, your imagination goes wild.”
One of her latest targets is improving the efficiency of solar cells. In April 2011, Belcher and her team published research that showed that modified bacteriophages can help improve the energy production of solar cells by 33 percent. The viruses attach themselves to carbon nanotubes—atom-scale cylinders prized for their strength and electrical properties—and wrangle other molecules to create a layer of titanium dioxide over each one, making the tubes more conductive than usual. The viruses also hold the tubes together in a particular pattern that improves the flow of electrons. Several materials companies are testing the technology, Belcher says. She’s previously founded two companies: San Francisco’s Siluria Technologies, which is using modified viruses to turn natural gas into oil, and Cambrios Technologies, which makes transparent coatings for touchscreens and received a $5 million investment from Samsung’s venture capital arm in late January.
Belcher grew up in Texas and was entranced by science as a child; she remembers taking apart clocks and electric can openers as early as age 5. (She stopped short of microwaves, fearing her mother’s wrath.) In middle school, she planned to become a doctor, and asked her parents to buy her medical books. “But when I got older, I really fell in love with the molecules,” she says. President Obama visited MIT in 2009 and toured Belcher’s lab. She presented him with a credit-card-size version of a periodic table. “In case you are ever in a bind and need to calculate molecular weight,” she said as she presented it to him. “I’ll look at it periodically,” she recalls him quipping.
Belcher continues to look to the natural world for cues. Her office at MIT is filled with shells and fossils, picked up on travels to such places as Israel. “Ultimately, what I am interested in is the paradigm in how nature manufactures materials,” Belcher says. “It doesn’t add toxic materials to the environment. It’s a cleaner form of manufacturing.”