Molecules containing both carbon and silicon have become a standard part of synthetic chemistry, but life uses silicon only in inorganic compounds such as the shells of diatoms.
Now, Frances Arnold and her collaborators at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena have engineered bacteria to produce carbon–silicon bonds. The team inserted a gene encoding an enzyme from the bacterium Rhodothermus marinus, which lives in Iceland's underwater hot springs, into Escherichia coli. The resulting bacterium catalysed carbon–silicon bonding in a variety of artificial precursors by inserting carbon into silicon–hydrogen bonds.
The researchers improved the efficiency of their biocatalyst by directed evolution — sequentially inducing mutations in the enzyme's active site and screening for improved activity — and say it could lead to new classes of pharmaceuticals and industrial catalysts using organosilicon molecules.
See go.nature.com/2fgot89 for a longer version of this article.