"Science and technology can play a major role in mitigating our negative influences on the environment.”
US-based chemical engineer Frances Arnold (pictured) is one of three scientists who have this month been awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She has won the prize for her work on the “directed evolution of enzymes”, which is a bioengineering method for creating new and better enzymes in the laboratory using the principles of evolution. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals.
Directed evolution works in the same way that breeders mate cats or dogs to bring out desired traits. To perform the method, scientists begin by inducing mutations to the DNA, or gene, that encodes a particular enzyme.
An assortment of thousands of mutated enzymes is produced and then tested for a desired trait. The top-performing enzymes are selected and the process is repeated to further enhance the enzymes' performances. For instance, in 2009, Arnold and her team, based at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) engineered enzymes that break down cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls, creating better catalysts for turning agricultural wastes into fuels and chemicals.
A number of additional enzymes produced through directed evolution are now used for a host of products, including biofuels, agricultural chemicals, paper products, and pharmaceuticals.
Arnold and her colleagues have also used directed evolution to persuade bacteria to make chemicals not found in nature, including molecules containing silicon-carbon or boron-carbon bonds, or bicyclobutanes, which contain energy-packed carbon rings.
By using bacteria, researchers can potentially make these chemical compounds in "greener" ways that are more economical and produce less toxic waste.
Arnold (@francesarnold) was born on 25 July 1956, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and arrived at Caltech as a visiting associate in 1986 and was named assistant professor in 1987, associate professor in 1992, and professor in 1996.
Speaking about her Nobel prize, Arnold said she was “absolutely floored” to receive the award, adding: “I have to wrap my head around this. It’s not something I was expecting.”
"My entire career I have been concerned about the damage we are doing to the planet and each other," Arnold said. "Science and technology can play a major role in mitigating our negative influences on the environment. Changing behaviour is even more important. However, I feel that change is easier when there are good, economically-viable alternatives to harmful habits."
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