The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Goes to the Directed Evolution of Enzymes

"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."

Three scientists share this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry for tapping the power of evolutionary biology to design molecules with a range of practical uses for a more sustainable chemistry, from environmentally friendly detergents to novel cancer drugs.

Half of the prize went to Frances H. Arnold, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). 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.

“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 explaining the prizes.

Enzymes – why is this work so important?

Frances Arnold’s work on enzymes laid the basis for the development of better industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals. She conducted the first ‘directed evolutionof enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions and provide access to new building blocks for chemicals or even pharmaceuticals. Moreover, new enzymes have been designed for use in detergents or as biocatalysts to create new sustainable biofuels.

Ling Hua, Head of Group Biotechnology, explains, why Frances Arnold’s achievements are of particular interest to Clariant’s scientists working in the field of biotechnology: “In former times, researchers were more or less hunters and collectors in biotechnology. We could look for enzymes or microorganisms in nature but had to live with the given properties. All of these molecules were fit to work in natural environments, few could be used in technical applications,” she says.

Directed evolution is a powerful tool  invented by Frances Arnold and others to create enzymes with superior performance. The technology employs the principles of evolution in nature. However, the ability to overpower nature by creating mutations in the laboratory and selecting the best variants through high throughput screening, which are then subjected to further rounds of mutation and selection, enables mankind to come up with new enzymes carrying out chemical reactions that have not been possible to accomplish before. With directed evolution, many compounds can be made through sustainable biocatalysis. Many processes that were not possible before become possible now. I collaborated with Frances Arnold 20 years ago to create enzymes for bioconversion of active pharmaceutical ingredients.”

“This year’s nobel price is awarded for revolutionary approaches that paved the way for modern industrial biotechnology. At Clariant, we apply the underlying principles and similar techniques in our daily work. A prominent example is our sunliquid technology where directed evolution is applied to develop highly active enzymes”, says Martin Vollmer, Chief Technology Officer.

Joana Isabel Kelp
Joana Isabel Kelp
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