Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 awarded for “harnessing the power of evolution”
Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018 has been awarded to three researchers.
American Frances Arnold – California Institute of Technology, US
American George Smith – University of Missouri, US
Brit Gregory Winter – MRC lab in Cambridge, UK
American Frances Arnold will get one half of the nine million Swedish kronor.
American George Smith and Brit Gregory Winter jointly get the other half of the prize.
About the work
Their work is “harnessing the power of evolution” to create compounds that are of benefit to humanity.
Their work centres on techniques of “directed evolution” – a method which imitates natural selection. This can help to create new powerful proteins that achieve specific tasks.
The method is now widely used in the production of new synthetic drugs, such as recombinant antibodies, to process or produce biofuels and medical treatments.
By engineering new molecules, the 2018 Nobel laureates have – according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences – “taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind”.
Arnold’s work focused on the directed evolution of enzymes – proteins that accelerate chemical reactions. Because they are so useful, scientists had long tried to create enzymes with desired properties artificially, but with little success.
Arnold – who is the fifth to join an important group of women to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry – instead developed a method to produce mutations in the genes that produced certain enzymes in order to select the best ones.
Arnold’s discovery was hugely important – creating a completely new way to design and produce pharmaceuticals and renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.
Smith and Winter also managed to use evolution to the advantage of humankind by developing a technique called phage display.
Smith first made the groundbreaking discovery of how “bacteriophages” – viruses that infect bacteria – work.
Using standard DNA technology, Winter’s group then used the bacteriophages to evolve new proteins. Essentially, Winter used the phage technology in order to engineer new “antibodies” in the bacteria – large proteins that are used by the immune system to fight harmful bacteria and viruses.
After many rounds of mutation and selection, artificial chemical evolution can select for the best antibody to fight a certain infection.
Winter was one of the first to produce functional mammalian antibodies or part of them in bacteria.
Winter has set up important commercial antibody producing facilities at Cambridge, producing drugs that can tackle devastating autoimmune diseases and metastatic cancer.
The work by all three recipients was largely carried out in the 1990s.