By Prarthana Mitra
Three evolutionary chemists Frances H Arnold (USA), George P Smith (USA) and Sir Gregory Winter (UK) shared the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday.
Dr. Arnold, a professor at California Institute of Technology, received half the recognition for “the first directed evolution of enzymes”, making her the fifth woman in history to win the Nobel in her field. Dr. Smith and Dr. Winter were credited for the “phage display of peptides and antibodies.” They have been associated with University of Missouri and M.R.C. Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England respectively.
Why is their work relevant?
In 1993, Arnold conducted and directed the first evolution of proteinous enzymes that catalyse chemical reactions. Smith in 1985 developed an elegant method which in technical terms is referred to as a bacteriophage, wherein a bacteria-infecting virus can be used to evolve new proteins. His phage display that linked proteins to genes has been described as “brilliant in its simplicity.” Winter led the experiment to use phage display to develop new biomolecules, including disease-blocking antibodies.
All the three scientists have contributed massively to a better understanding of humankind’s chemical problems and taking control of evolution to an extent that they harnessed its power in a test tube. The three were applauded for tapping the mysteries of evolutionary biology in the design of molecules.
The press release from the Royal Swedish Academy read, “The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases cure metastatic cancer.”
Their discoveries may pave the way for new and more efficient pharmaceutical drugs, less toxic reactions while manufacturing chemicals and plant-derived fuels to replace oil, gas and coal.
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was won by Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for developing a method to assemble three-dimensional images of biological molecules like proteins, DNA and RNA.
The Nobel Prize for Peace and Economics will be announced subsequently this week.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.