October 4, 2018

A Pulitzer Prize for Evolutionary Biology

Frances Arnold
Image: Caltech

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded yesterday to three recipients for discovering methods in controlling and speeding enzyme and antibody evolution.

Frances H. Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, was awarded one half of the prize for “ the directed evolution of enzymes.” She is only the 5th woman to ever receive the prize.

The other half of the prize is shared by George P. Smith, professor emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Missouri and biochemist Sir Gregory P. Winters from the M.R.C Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK.

Arnold pioneered the directed evolution of enzymes in 1993. At the time, her ideas were considered, in Arnold’s words, “the lunatic fringe.” The prevailing theory was that researchers could use computers to individually construct specific proteins.

Thankfully, Arnold did not back away from her insights. Instead of trying to re-invent nature, she used nature’s own evolutionary processes to rapidly produce enzymes with specific catalytic functions. This allowed researchers to skip the Darwinian wait times of standard enzyme evolution and go straight to creating enzymes based on a desired outcome.“It’s like breeding a racehorse,” Arnold told Nature.

Arnold’s methods are currently applied across a broad range of sectors. Directed enzymes are used in more eco-friendly chemical manufacturing and the production of biofuels. They are also a staple in synthesizing pharmaceuticals.

Arnold’s underlying approach of employing biology’s natural functions has also had a broad impact for entrepreneurs in the synthetic biology domain.

Peter Meinhold is a co-founder and CTO of Provivi. Provivi utilizes pheromones as a preventive, natural, pest control method for row crops. Meinhold has a long, fruitful, history with Arnold and her work. He interned and then pursued his Ph.D with her at Caltech. Fast-forward 19 years and Arnold is now a Provivi co-founder, board member and advisor.

Meinhold took time to speak with SynBioBeta about Arnold’s award. He expressed deep respect for Arnold both as a scientist and as a person. “She’s amazing. Aside from the science and technology, she has a way of bringing engineers and scientists together from different disciplines to work in her lab and beyond.” Indeed, multiple Arnold alumni currently work at Provivi. “It’s quite an honor to have worked with her for so long.”

Arnold has also influenced other rising synthetic biology companies and innovators. She was a mentor to Chris Voigt who, in turn, mentored Karsten Temme. Temme is now the CEO of Pivot Bio.

For their part, Smith and Winters were recognised for “the phage display of peptides and antibodies.”

Smith initiated the work by developing  phage display in 1985. By using a bacteriophage to host a protein, his method allowed researchers to see which molecules respond to that protein.

Winters built off of and improved Smith’s method and invented ways to evolve antibodies for human therapeutics. The company Winters co-founded in 1989– Cambridge Antibody Technology– used evolved antibodies to create Humira, the most sold pharmaceutical in the world.

The scientific contributions from these newly minted Nobel laureates have had worldwide impact. But Smith was quick to point out the importance of the discoveries that came before him. “Mine was an idea in a line of research that built very naturally on the lines of research that went before,” he told the Associated Press.

The full evolution of these groundbreaking discoveries is not yet complete. Arnold told Nature “that one of her dreams is to create an enzyme that can take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it to materials and fuels.”

Meinhold sees directed evolution as a building block for where metabolic engineering is headed next. “It’s the ability to re-engineer living systems. The mechanism of evolution allows us to take proteins, evolve them and then reintroduce them into organisms to do do things never before seen in nature.”

The Nobel Prize award ceremony will be on December 10th in Stockholm.


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