Dr. Angela Belcher: harnessing the power of evolution

Today, 5 June, marks World Environment Day, a celebration of nature and a time to encourage and promote environmental protection. On this occasion, DiscovHER brings you the story of Dr. Angela Belcher, a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), whose extraordinary research sounds like something out of a science fiction novel: she genetically engineers viruses that are capable of producing inorganic materials like batteries. These batteries, while not ready for mass commercial production, are synthesized in a less energy-intensive way than traditional lithium-ion batteries, and use non-toxic materials. What’s more, Dr. Belcher’s innovative methods have the potential to be harnessed for other uses, such as fighting cancer.

It all started with an abalone shell. As a young researcher in the 1990s, Dr. Belcher became fascinated by these sea mollusks’ ability to build immensely strong outer shells, by producing proteins that bind with minerals present in sea water. Sea creatures evolved to grow shells and bones 500m years ago, and it took them around 50m years to perfect this process. Dr. Belcher wondered if there was a way to harness these evolutionary processes and use organisms to grow inorganic materials, just like the abalones, that could be put to use by humans. In particular, she wanted to genetically engineer bacteriophages (viruses that infect only bacteria) to produce semi-conductors that could be used in electronic circuits. When she first submitted a proposal for her project at the University of Texas, Austin, her idea was branded “insane”.

A more accurate description of Dr. Belcher’s work might be “genius”. She developed a technique whereby billions of genetically modified bacteriophage are exposed to the material she is interested in producing, such as cobalt oxide for example, used for making battery anodes. By selecting the viruses who showed the greatest affinity to the material by attaching to it, gathering them up, and repeating and refining the process, Dr. Belcher can, in relatively short amounts of time, engineer viruses capable of producing useful inorganic materials. This process is a little like high-speed natural selection.

Her team have already managed to create small cell batteries capable of powering LEDs and small electronic devices. Although they are not yet ready to be put to commercial use, virus batteries are highly promising, and Dr. Belcher’s team hopes they can one day replace traditional lithium-ion batteries for use in electric cars and a myriad of other devices. They have the added advantage of using less energy to produce and being made from non-toxic materials, making them environmentally-friendly, too.

Dr. Belcher’s research carries other astounding possibilities. In 2010, she joined the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, hoping to develop a method of detecting extremely small tumors. Her idea is to use genetically modified viruses that attach onto carbon nanotubes, and are designed to bind to cancer cells. They would be capable of glowing from up to 10cm inside the body, allowing doctors to precisely identify where a tumor is located. If Dr. Belcher succeeds, she would revolutionize cancer screening techniques.

What do you think of Dr. Belcher’s research? Let us know @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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