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Chemistry Nobel for harnessing evolution to develop medicines, biofuels

October 03, 2018 18:30 IST
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IMAGE: Pictures of 2018 Nobel Prize laureates for chemistry: Frances H Arnold of the United States, George P Smith of the United States and Gregory P Winter of Britain are displayed on a screen during the announcement at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in Stockholm, on Wednesday. Photograph: Jonas Ekstromer/TT News Agency/via Reuters

The trio of two American and one British scientists has been awarded the Noble prize in Chemistry for their research in application of principles of evolution to develop enzymes used to make everything from biofuels to medicine.

United States scientist Frances Arnold, only the fifth woman to be awarded the Chemistry Nobel, won one half of the 9 million Swedish kronor (about Rs 7.5 crore); while US scientist George Smith and British researcher Gregory Winter shared the other half.

The trio used the same principles of evolution -- genetic change and selection -- to develop proteins used in a range of fields.


Arnold, 62, professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, has survived breast cancer and is a single mother to three sons.

Her research in rewriting DNA to imitate evolution has helped solve problems such as replacing toxic chemicals like fossil fuels resulting in conversion of renewable resources like sugarcane into biofuels.

It has also paved way for development of more environmentally friendly chemical substances and everyday products such as laundry and dishwashing detergents to enhance their performance in cold temperatures.

‘The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind,’ the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences said.

“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,” the head of the Academy’s Nobel Chemistry committee, Claes Gustafsson, told reporters.

University of Missouri’s Smith and 67-year-old Winter, a genetic engineer at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge, developed an ‘elegant method’ known as phage display, where a bacteriophage -- a virus that infects bacteria -- can be used to evolve new proteins, the jury said.

Pharmaceuticals for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases have resulted from their research, as well as anti-bodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

"The discoveries by George Smith and Greg Winter are having an enormous impact, particularly on medicine with antibody drugs that have fewer side effects and are more efficient," Goran Hansson, the head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, told reporters.

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