David Baker appreciates nature’s masterpieces. “This is my favorite spot,” says the Seattle native, admiring the views from a terrace at the University of Washington (UW) here. To the south rises Mount Rainier, a 4400-meter glacier-draped volcano; to the west, the white-capped Olympic Mountain range.
But head inside to his lab and it’s quickly apparent that the computational biochemist is far from satisfied with what nature offers, at least when it comes to molecules. On a low-slung coffee table lie eight toy-sized, 3D-printed replicas of proteins. Some resemble rings and balls, others tubes and cages—and none existed before Baker and his colleagues designed and built them. Over the last several years, with a big assist from the genomics and computer revolutions, Baker’s team has all but solved one of the biggest challenges in modern science: figuring out how long strings of amino acids fold up into the 3D proteins that form the working machinery of life. Now, he and colleagues have taken this ability and turned it around to design and then synthesize unnatural proteins intended to act as everything from medicines to materials.