Three scientists have won the Nobel prize in chemistry for their work in harnessing evolution to produce new enzymes and antibodies.
British scientist Sir Gregory P Winter and Americans Frances H Arnold and George P Smith will share the 9m Swedish kronor (£770,000) prize, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
The winners’ work has led to the development of new fuels and pharmaceuticals by making use of nature’s evolutionary processes themselves, leading to medical and environmental advances.
“This is a field that was waiting for a Nobel prize,” said Paul Dalby, professor of biochemical engineering and biotechnology at University College London.
Half of the prize goes to Arnold, from the California Institute of Technology, for her work on directing the evolution of enzymes – proteins that speed up chemical reactions. In a nutshell, Arnold introduced random genetic mutations into enzymes, and then looked to see what effect the mutations had. She then selected the cases where a particular mutation proved useful – for example allowing the enzyme to work in an environment, such as a solvent, it would otherwise not work in. The process could then be repeated, with further genetic mutations introduced into these selected enzymes.
Arnold’s work has made it possible to cut out the use of many toxic catalysts, providing enzymes for all manner of fields including the development of biofuels and the production of pharmaceuticals.
“People were already using enzymes in industry but only ones they could find in nature that just happened to be good enough – but that was really not many and very problematic to get them to work in industry,” said Dalby. “When [Arnold] came along, now you can adapt your enzyme to work in an industrial environment, instead of in a cell where it is normally used to working.
“Ultimately what it does it take natural evolution’s billion-year process or million-year process down into what is now probably less than a week.”
The other half of the award goes to Winter and Smith for their work on “phage display of peptides and antibodies”. A phage is a virus that can infect bacteria and trick them into reproducing it. Smith, of the University of Missouri, found it was possible to tinker with the genetic material of a phage to change the molecules stuck on its outside.
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