The 2018 chemistry Nobel prize has been awarded to three scientists who have developed techniques to direct the evolution of enzymes and proteins.

One half of the prize will go to Frances Arnold from the California Institute of Technology, US who first demonstrated directed evolution of enzymes, an approach that has since been used to make new biological catalysts for useful chemical reactions, including those used to synthesise new drugs and greener fuels. Her work has even enabled the creation of enzymes that can carry out reactions and form bonds unknown in biological organisms.

The other half will be jointly split between George Smith from the University of Missouri, US and Gregory Winter from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK who developed a technique called phage display. This technique uses bacteria-infecting viruses to drive the evolution of new proteins and antibodies. Phage display has been used in the development of new drugs such as the antibody Humira (adalimumab) – the world’s biggest selling drug with sales of $16 billion in 2016 – which is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and other auto-immune diseases.

Schematic showing the underlying principle for the directed evolution of enzymes

Source: MLA style: Advanced information. Nobel Media AB 2018. Wed. 3 Oct 2018.

The underlying principle for the directed evolution of enzymes. After a few cycles of directed evolution, an enzyme may be several thousand times more effective

At a time when gender bias in the sciences is under scrutiny as never before Arnold’s win makes her the first woman to take the chemistry prize since Ada Yonath in 2009 for her work on the ribosome’s inner workings. Arnold’s win brings the total number of women who have won the chemistry prize to five and follows the awarding of the physics prize to Donna Strickland – the first woman to win the physics prize for 55 years.

‘This year’s nobel laureates have been able to direct evolution to make proteins with new and useful properties,’ said Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel committee for chemistry, at the announcement of the prize in Stockholm, Sweden. ‘This work has led to new chemical tools that can be used for everything from environmentally friendly detergents to the creation of new biofuels and pharmaceuticals.’

‘Today’s Nobel prize in chemistry highlights the tremendous role of chemistry in contributing to many areas of our lives including pharmaceuticals, detergents, green catalysis and biofuels. It is a great advert for chemistry to have impact in so many areas,’ said Carol Robinson, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry. ‘Directed evolution of enzymes and antibody technology are subjects that I have followed with keen interest; both are now transforming medicine. It would have been hard to predict the outcome of this research at the start – this speaks to the need for basic research. I am delighted to see these areas of chemistry recognised and congratulate all three Nobel Laureates.’

The winners will each receive a share of the SEK9 million (£771,000) prize, and will go to Stockholm to receive their prize medals from the King of Sweden at a ceremony on 10 December.