Speeding up the evolution of proteins wins the chemistry Nobel

The work of the three new laureates is used in everything from drugs to biofuels

nobel medal chemistry

Frances Arnold of Caltech, George Smith of the University of Missouri in Columbia and Gregory Winter of the University of Cambridge have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for speeding up evolution to make proteins with new and useful properties. Such proteins are suitable for a variety of uses, ranging from new drugs to biofuels. The new laureates were announced October 3 at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm.

Thanks to Arnold’s work on evolving new enzymes from old ones in a test tube, “you can now use enzymes to speed up any process you want,” Nobel committee member Sara Snogerup Linse said during the announcement ceremony.

Instead of test tubes, Smith and Winter used viruses called bacteriophages. The researchers put instructions for building proteins into the viruses, commonly called phage, and let the phage mutate to make new versions of the proteins. Those proteins are then incorporated into the outer capsule of the phage, earning the name phage display. Winter’s research, in particular, produces human antibodies for treating a variety of diseases. Antibodies made from bacteriophages can bind more efficiently to their targets than even ones produced during immunization, allowing doctors to give lower doses, Snogerup Linse said.

The trio will share the 9-million-kronor prize (about $1 million). Arnold, who is the fifth woman to win the chemistry prize, will claim half of it for her work. Smith and Winter will split the other half. The laureates will collect a medal and their shares of the monetary prize at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.

Check back later today for a full story on this Nobel Prize–winning work.

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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