CHEMICAL ENGINEER Frances Arnold has won the €1m (US$1.1m) Millennium Technology Prize for her pioneering work in directed evolution.
The prize is awarded every two years by Technology Academy Finland to innovators who enhance the quality of people’s lives.
Arnold is the professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), US. Her work mimics natural selection to create new proteins that are used to develop cleaner and cheaper industrial processes to produce food, fuel from biomass and detergents.
Her work has been widely used to create enzymes for manufacturing pharmaceuticals, resulting in more efficient processes for making medicines including Januvia for type 2 diabetes.
'They replaced a chemical process with an enzymatic process, thereby completely eliminating toxic metals that were needed... and getting solvent waste reduction of 60%,' Arnold told the BBC. 'We're talking tonnes of material.'
Arnold’s work overcame the slow and costly process of protein modification and her methods are now used in laboratories across the world. She describes directed evolution as a version of breeding that uses advances in molecular biology to evolve not a whole organism but a protein with desirable features. The foundations of this concept emerged from her work 20 years ago, she told the BBC. It leans on the principles of evolution by not seeking a final design but instead making random mutations to genes, selecting the ones that produce proteins with the most desirable properties and then repeating the process time and again to produce iterative benefits.
“I don’t have the same constraints that the farmer or the dog breeder had in the past — I can choose genes from three or 33 parents, recombine genes from different species, and I can control the rate and nature of the mutations. And I can select from their protein products those with features I like — say an enzyme that catalyses a new reaction to make a useful chemical or one that could be used to cure a disease or one that does a better job at taking stains off clothes,” she explains.
The method allows researchers to circumvent what Arnold describes as “our near complete ignorance” of how DNA sequences encode a specific function which is not understood well enough to directly tailor something useful.
“Evolution is the most powerful engineering method in the world, and we should make use of it to find new biological solutions to problems,” says Arnold.
In an interview with the organisers of the prize, Arnold said she expects the technology will start to have an even wider impact in the next few years producing fine chemicals, agricultural chemicals, and creating bonds that do not exist in nature – opening up new classes of materials.
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