With his secure defense research facility, robotics lab, and fleet of researchers, University of Texas professor Dr. Andy Ellington might appear to be a CIA scientist building the latest intelligence gadgets for modern day 007s. In fact, Andy Ellington studies evolution. A self-described evolutionary engineer, he uses evolutionary principles to evolve molecules and organisms that serve all sorts of functions: from warning us of a chemical weapons attack to fighting HIV to detecting cancer. Said Ellington, "I don't make the molecule; I don't make the organism I make them better."
Surprisingly, Andy's first research focus was not biotechnology, but the origin of life. How did a scientist whose burning interest lies in the billion-year old chemical reactions of the primordial soup wind up running a lab of 50 people with millions of dollars in research grants? Although a fascinating issue, the origin of life typically does not attract much in terms of research funds. Nevertheless, to Andy, the connection between origins research and evolutionary engineering is clear: "The same type of processes that would have led to functional molecules at or near origins are the processes that I use to make biosensors for military or homeland defense."