Thu, Oct 04, 2018 - Page 1 News List

Trio win Nobel chemistry prize for harnessing evolution


Biochemical engineer and newly awarded Nobel laureate in chemistry Frances Arnold is pictured in an undated photograph in Pasadena, California.

Photo: EPA / California Institute of Technology

US scientists Frances Arnold and George Smith, and British researcher Gregory Winter yesterday won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for applying the principles of evolution to develop enzymes used to make everything from biofuels to medicine.

Arnold, the fifth woman to clinch chemistry’s most prestigious honor, won one-half of the 9 million kronor (US$1 million) award, while Smith and Winter shared the other half.

“The 2018 Nobel laureates in chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind,” the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said.

The trio used the same principles of evolution — genetic change and selection — to develop proteins used in a range of fields.

“They have applied the principles of Darwin in test tubes. They have used the molecular understanding we have of the evolutionary process and recreated the process in their labs,” Nobel Committee for Chemistry chairman Claes Gustafsson told reporters. “They have been able to make evolution many 1,000s of times faster and redirect it to create new proteins.”

Arnold, 62, who has survived breast cancer and is a single mother of three sons, is a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

Her method of rewriting DNA to mimic evolution has helped solve problems such as replacing toxic chemicals like fossil fuels.

As a result, renewable resources such as sugar cane are being converted into biofuels.

More environmentally friendly chemical substances are being developed, improving everyday products such as laundry and dishwashing detergents to enhance their performance in cold temperatures.

“The most beautiful, complex and functional objects on the planet have been made by evolution. We can now use evolution to make things that no human knows how to design,” Arnold said in 2016.

“Evolution is the most powerful engineering method in the world and we should make use of it to find new biological solutions to problems,” she said. “Instead of pumping oil out of the ground for making gasoline, now we can use sunlight stored in plants.”

Meanwhile, Smith, of the University of Missouri, and Winter, a 67-year-old genetic engineer at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology at the University of Cambridge, developed an “elegant method” known as phage display, in which a bacteriophage — a virus that infects bacteria — can be used to evolve new proteins, the jury said.

Pharmaceuticals for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases have resulted from their research, as well as antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

“The discoveries by George Smith and Greg Winter are having an enormous impact, particularly on medicine with antibody drugs that have fewer side effects and are more efficient,” academy secretary-general Goran Hansson told reporters.

Alfred Nobel, who created the prizes in his will, was himself a chemist and devised his famed awards in part to atone for inventing dynamite.

The peace prize is to be announced tomorrow and the economics prize is to wrap up the Nobel season on Monday next week.

The academy has postponed the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature until next year, amid a #MeToo scandal and internal dispute that has prevented it from functioning properly.

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