Silicon is all around us: after oxygen, it is the most abundant element in Earth’s crust. So why living beings never incorporate it into their biochemistry has long been a puzzle.
Now chemical engineers have discovered that living organisms can be nudged to bind carbon and silicon together. They showed that a natural enzyme from a bacterium that lives in hot springs can form C–Si bonds inside living Escherichia coli cells — when the cells are fed the right silicon-containing compounds. And by engineering the enzyme, the researchers created a biological catalyst that performs the reaction more efficiently than any artificial one.
The finding could help chemists to develop new pharmaceuticals and industrial catalysts — and perhaps explain why evolution has almost completely shunned silicon.
No room for silicon?
Nature exploits a number of common metals in biochemistry: notable cases include iron in red blood cells and magnesium in chlorophyll. But silicon (an element …