Three scientists shared this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for tapping the power of evolutionary biology to design molecules with a range of practical uses. Those include new drugs, more efficient and less toxic reactions in the manufacture of chemicals and plant-derived fuels to replace oil, gas and coal extracted from the ground.
Half of the prize and the accompanying $1 million went to Frances H. Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology. She is only the fifth woman to win a chemistry Nobel and the first since 2009.
The other half of the prize is shared by George P. Smith, an emeritus professor 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 conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. Dr. Smith developed a method, known as phage display, in which a virus that infects bacteria can be used to evolve new proteins. Dr. Winter has used phage display to produce new pharmaceuticals.
Why is the work important?
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said the scientists had managed to harness the power of evolution in test tubes. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to medical treatments. Phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and even cure metastatic cancer.
“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. Arnold’s work, which has been utilized to create sustainable biofuels, is “contributing to a greener world,” the academy added.
Dr. Smith’s development of phage display to link proteins to genes was described by the academy as “brilliant in its simplicity.” Dr. Winter was one of the leaders in using phage display to develop new biomolecules, including disease-blocking antibodies.