The Nobel Prize was awarded to a team of three and, for just the fifth time in 117 years, to a woman
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Dr. Frances H. Arnold for her work in the directed evolution of enzymes. Dr. Arnold shared this year’s prize in chemistry with Dr. George P. Smith and Dr. Gregory P. Winter, splitting the $1 million prize associated with the honor by $500,000 and $250,000, respectively.
In the award’s 117-year history, it is rare for a woman chemist to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The prize, just as it was this year, is often awarded to several chemists working on different projects within one year. There have been 177 recipients of the award over the past century, yet Dr. Arnold is only the fifth woman to have received it.
However, this gender inequity is not unique to the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Only three women have won the award in physics, including Marie Curie’s famed 1903 victory, and just one woman, Elinor Ostrom, has been awarded the prize in economics. At a total of 17 female recipients, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the most women out of the six Nobel Prize categories.
Dr. Arnold, a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena working in chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry, began her work directing the evolution of enzymes in 1993. Dr. Arnold developed the bioengineering method that allows chemists to influence the evolution of enzymes (proteins that catalyse biochemical reactions) just as one can selectively breed animals to bring about certain desired traits.
Her work has produced enzymes that can act as detergents, biofuels or medicines. Due to their organic production, lab-produced enzymes are prime candidates for replacing chemicals that are often used in the production of fuels or medications with devastating effects on the environment. For her work, Dr. Arnold was also awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2013.
The key to Dr. Arnold’s method is not pinpointing the exact functions of different genes within certain specimens of subtilisin, Dr. Arnold’s preferred species of enzyme, but rather allowing directed selection and mutagenesis to do the brunt of the work. “To me it is obvious that this is the way it should be done,” says Dr. Arnold in her NobelPrize.org interview.
Dr. Smith and Dr. Winter were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize “for the phage display of peptides and antibodies,” to use Smith’s own description. Smith pioneered the process known as phage display in 1985. The method uses a virus that infects bacteria, known as a bacteriophage, as a host that displays a protein on its body, allowing chemists to study what molecules can interact with the displayed protein.
Since 1985, phage display has been used in the creation of new antibodies, with the first becoming commercially available in 2002 to combat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. In the last 16 years since its market introduction, phage display has created antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.