Three scientists shared the coveted prize in Chemistry for their contributions in harnessing the power of evolutionary biology to to design molecules with a range of practical uses. Those include pharmaceutical drugs, efficient and less toxic reactions involving chemicals to replace oil and some hypothetic solutions like directed evolution of enzymes known to degrade plastic.
Frances H. Arnold, a professor at California Institute of Technology, shares half of the $1 million prize and is only the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. The other half of the prize is shared by George P. Smith, an emeritus of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, and Gregory P. Winter, a biochemist at the M.R.C Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England.
Why did they win?
Dr. Arnold was the first to conduct directed evolution of enzymes, biological proteins that catalyze a reaction. She utilized a technique, developed by Dr. Smith, known as phage display, a process in which a bacteria is infected with a virus that contains the genetic code for a protein of interest. Dr. Winter used phage display to develop pharmaceuticals.
Phage display is a technique used for the production and screening of novel proteins and polypeptides by inserting a gene fragment into a gene responsible for the surface protein of a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacterial cells. The new protein is expressed on the surface coating of the virus, in which it can be manipulated and tested for biological activity. Now, scientists are able to screen billions of varying gene fragments in a matter of days.
Why is their work important?
In a nutshell, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences stated “harness the power of evolution” in a test tube. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to drugs to treat metastatic cancer patients.
“This year’s Nobel Laureates in chemistry have been inspired by the power of evolution and used the same principles — genetic change and selection — to develop proteins that solve mankind’s chemical problems,” the academy said in documents explaining the prizes.
Dr. Arnolds work has been used to generate biofuels “contributing to a greener world,” the academy added.
Dr. Smith’s developments in methods of phage display to link proteins to genes was “brilliant in its simplicity,” according to the academy. Dr. Winter was a successful pioneer in using phage display to develop antibodies
Scientists can screen billions of libraries of various genes to identify proteins with the most desirable attributes in a matter of days. Dr. Smith’s work, developed in 1985, has been used to create drugs treating a range of diseases, including auto immune related and cancer.
Scientists have already discovered important proteins implicated in cancer such as PD-1/PD-L1 and have therapies like Nivolumab and Pembrolizumab but may not have the best gene sequence for an optimal antibody. Phage display allows scientists to screen for the best gene sequence.
Hypothetical solutions for the worlds plastic problem can be solved by using phage display to find an optimal enzyme for the degradation of plastic that is ubiquitous in our world. By using phage display, scientists can discover the optimal gene sequence for an enzyme known to degrade plastic and mass produce the best enzyme.
Picture: The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Frances H. Arnold, George P. Smith and Gregory P. Winter for their work in evolutionary science. Pool photo by Jonas Ekstromer