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BLOG: Nobel Prize for US and UK scientists who 'harnessed the power of evolution'

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BLOG: Nobel Prize for US and UK scientists who 'harnessed the power of evolution'
Introducing this year's Nobel laureates. Photo: Nele Schröder/The Local
11:00 CEST+02:00
The Local reported live from Stockholm, where the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was announced on Wednesday.
  • The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to Frances H Arnold (USA) "for the directed evolution of enzymes", with the other half shared between George P Smith (USA) and Sir Gregory P Winter (UK) "for the phage display of peptides and antibodies".

13:08 'We have only done a very small fraction of what can be done'

The Local's Catherine Edwards has been speaking with Peter Brzezinski from the department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Stockholm University to find out more about the science behind this year's award.

He says:

"What is common to all the prizes is that they have developed methods to produce new molecules, using the tools of evolution. These molecules can be used for example as pharmaceuticals or as taste enhancers or even detergents. It's a very versatile tool that can be used for many different purposes."

"The two halves of the prize are quite separate. The common thing is that they both use the tools of evolution to create new molecules but the two ways of making the molecules are very different." 


Professor Peter Brzezinski speaking to The Local's Catherine Edwards. Photo: Nele Schröder/The Local

How will ordinary people benefit from this research? "There are many examples. Pharmaceuticals that are used for treating diabetes, cancer and autoimmune diseases. Then things like enhancing the action of detergent and commercial products."

Can you explain why these discoveries are sustainable? "Yes: we've been able to make new molecules for a long time but it often involved using chemicals that can be harmful to the environment, like strong acids or solvents. In this way, one does not need to use all these chemicals so it's a much cleaner and more efficient method. Also the yield is much better so you don't get extra side products and chemicals that you then have to get rid of. It speeds things up, but also doesn't require all these other chemicals that are used in other methods."

And what does this mean for the future? "These methods are still being developed, and there are so many different molecules that we can make. Frances Arnold is using enzymes to make new molecules and they are built of amino acids. There are thousands of amino acids in each molecule so the variability is so large and we have only done a very small fraction of what can be done."

And with that I'm going to round off this blog for today. There is no prize tomorrow, but I will be back here on The Local Sweden with the Economics prize on Monday. To find out more about the Peace prize, follow our sister site The Local Norway on Friday.

Thank you to everyone who has signed up as Members of The Local, by the way. This blog is free to read, but if anyone else wants to support our independent journalism, be part of our community of international Members, and have more of a say on the stories we produce, please consider joining us HERE. If you're a student, don't forget you can get a 50 percent discount.

12:50 More to come

We'll have more for you soon from one of the Nobel experts here at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Local's Catherine Edwards is speaking with professor Peter Brzezinski from the department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Stockholm University.

12:20 Sorry James Bond villains, nothing to see here

Here are some updates from The Local's Catherine Edwards, reassuring us that if we thought "harnessing the power of evolution" meant recreating Jurassic Park or any given James Bond movie, it does not:

12:11 What you need to know about the science

The Nobel panel just tried to set up a phone connection to allow journalists to speak to Frances H Arnold, but the line was very bad so in the end they gave up. She is a professor at the California Institute of Technology and conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, proteins that catalyze chemical reactions, in 1993.

Quoting the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences' informative press release: "Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold's enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector."

The other half of the prize is awarded jointly to George P Smith of the University of Missouri and Sir Gregory P Winter of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK.

"In 1985, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Gregory Winter used phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first one based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced anti-bodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer."

I have to say that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (and we'll get to speak with one of their experts to find out more shortly) always goes out of its way to make the science behind the Nobel Prizes understandable even to people like, well, me.

12:00 'Inspired by the power of evolution'

Here's a handy factsheet by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences if you want to understand more about the research that led to this year's prize. The first three paragraphs read:

"The power of evolution is revealed through the diversity of life. The 2018 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry have taken control of evolution and used it for purposes that bring the greatest benefit to humankind. Enzymes produced through directed evolution are used to manufacture everything from biofuels to pharmaceuticals. Antibodies evolved using a method called phage display can combat autoimmune diseases and in some cases cure metastatic cancer."

"Since the first seeds of life arose around 3.7 billion years ago, almost every crevice on Earth has filled with different organisms. Life has spread to hot springs, deep oceans and dry deserts, all because evolution has solved a number of chemical problems. Life's chemical tools – proteins – have been optimized, changed and renewed, creating incredible diversity."

"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."

Watch a video of the announcement here:

11:45 The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to...

... Frances H Arnold "for the directed evolution of enzymes", with the other half shared between George P Smith and Sir Gregory P Winter "for the phage display of peptides and antibodies".

11:43 Watch the announcement live:

11:40 Did you know?

When Marie Curie was awarded the 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, she became the first person to receive two Nobel Prizes (she was jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 together with her husband).

In total 109 Nobel Prizes in Chemistry have been awarded since 1901, every year except in 1916, 1917, 1919, 1924, 1933, 1940, 1941 and 1942. Why? Well, the statutes of the Nobel Foundation say: "If none of the works under consideration is found to be of the importance indicated in the first paragraph (of Alfred Nobel's will), the prize money shall be reserved until the following year. If, even then, the prize cannot be awarded, the amount shall be added to the Foundation's restricted funds".

Here's what Nobel, who died in 1896, wrote in his will: "One part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Just five minutes to go now...

11:28 Welcome to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

The Local's Nele Schröder just sent me the picture below from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, where the Nobel Prize in Chemistry is due to be announced at 11.45am Stockholm time. Yesterday they had some trouble getting a phone connection to one of the laureates (who get told of their award just half an hour before the rest of us find out) so the press conference started slightly behind schedule. Very un-Swedish.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences was founded in 1739, modelled on the Royal Society of London and l'Academie Royale des Sciences in Paris. World-famous botanist Carl Linneaus was one of the founders. It is an independent non-governmental organization whose objective is to "promote the sciences and strengthen their influence in society". It is made up of around 460 Swedish and 175 non-Swedish members. 


The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Photo: Nele Schröder/The Local

11:00 There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium...

... and a third day of Nobel Prizes, with this year's Chemistry laureate(s) being announced today.

Stay tuned to find out more from myself and our reporters Catherine Edwards and Nele Schröder, reporting live from Stockholm. Yesterday, we were told who the winners of the Physics prize were, and on Monday two cancer researchers won the Medicine prize. So... get ready for another fun-filled day of science.

 
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