Nobel Prize

Nobel chemistry prize goes to US, British enzyme researchers

Americans Frances Arnold and George Smith and Briton Gregory Winter won for using directed evolution to produce enzymes for new chemicals and pharmaceuticals

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 6:10pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 10:09pm

Scientists Frances Arnold, George Smith and Gregory Winter won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for research using directed evolution to produce enzymes and antibodies for new chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the award-giving body said on Wednesday.

Arnold, only the fifth woman to win a chemistry Nobel, was awarded half of the 9 million Swedish krona (US$1 million) prize while fellow American Smith and Winter of Britain shared the other half.

“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 Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

“They have applied the principles of Darwin in test tubes. They have used the molecular understanding we have of the evolutionary process and recreated the process in their labs,” head of the Academy’s Nobel Chemistry committee Claes Gustafsson told reporters. “They have been able to make evolution many 1000s of times faster and redirect it to create new proteins.”

Arnold is the second woman to win a Nobel Prize this year after Canada’s Donna Strickland shared the physics award on Tuesday.

The uses of enzymes developed by Arnold include more environmentally-friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

Smith developed a method using a virus that infects bacteria to produce new proteins while Winter used the same method for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals.

Smith, reached at his home in Columbia, Missouri, was quick to credit the work of others for his prize.

“Pretty much every Nobel laureate understands that what he’s getting the prize for is built on many precedents, a great number of ideas and research that he is exploiting because he is at the right place at the right time,” he said. “Very few research breakthroughs are novel. Virtually all of them build on what went on before. It’s happenstance. That was certainly the case with my work. Mine was an idea in a line of research that built very naturally on the lines of research that went before.”

He said he learned of the prize in a pre-dawn phone call from Stockholm.

“It’s a standard joke that someone with a Swedish accent calls and says you won! But there was so much static on the line, I knew it wasn’t any of my friends,” he said.

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He added that he has “no idea” what he’ll do with the prize money.

“We’re going to give it away, I think. But we’ll think hard how we’ll do it. It’s not just the money, it has a meaning well beyond the money.”

Smith was a professor for 40 years at the University of Missouri at the Division of Biological Sciences.

Carol Robinson, president of Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, said the award highlighted “the tremendous role of chemistry in contributing to many areas of our lives including pharmaceuticals, detergents, green catalysis and biofuels” and that the research was “transforming medicine”.

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Chemistry is the third of this year’s Nobel Prizes. On Monday, James Allison and Tasuku Honjo won the 2018 medicine Nobel for their work on harnessing the immune system to combat cancer, and on Tuesday the physics prize was shared between Arthur Ashkin, Gerard Mourou and Donna Strickland for their work on laser physics.

The peace prize winner will be announced on Friday, followed by economics on Monday. The literature award is not being given this year after a scandal that resulted in a rape conviction earlier this week .

Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian