‘Test-tube’ evolution wins Chemistry Nobel Prize

Oct 4, 2018

By Elizabeth Gibney, Richard Van Noorden, Heidi Ledford, Davide Castelvecchi, & Matthew Warren

Ways to speed up and control the evolution of proteins to produce greener technologies and new medicines have won three scientists the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Chemical engineer Frances Arnold, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is just the second woman to win the prize in the past 50 years. She was awarded half of the 9-million-Swedish-krona (US$1 million) pot. The remaining half was shared between Gregory Winter at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and George Smith at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Arnold carried out pioneering work in the 1990s on ‘directed evolution’ of enzymes. She devised a method for inducing mutations in enzyme-producing bacteria and then screening and selecting the bacteria to speed up and direct enzyme evolution. These enzymes, proteins that catalyse chemical reactions, are now used in applications from making biofuels to synthesizing medical drugs.

“Biology has this one process that’s responsible for all this glorious complexity we see in nature,” she told Nature shortly after the prize announcement on 3 October. But although nature operates blindly, scientists know what chemical properties they want to get from an enzyme, and her techniques accelerate natural selection towards those goals. “It’s like breeding a racehorse.”

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