This year’s Nobel Laureates in Chemistry seem to be inspired by a phenomenon more closely associated with Biology than Chemistry — evolution.
Half of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Frances H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, USA. The other half was jointly awarded to George P. Smith of the University of Missouri and Sir Gregory P. Winter of the University of Cambridge, UK.
Arnold conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes (proteins that catalyse chemical reactions) in 1993 and she has continued to refine her methods since then. Today, they are routinely used to develop new catalysts. The enzymes she created are used for the environmentally friendly manufacture of chemical substances and the production of renewable fuels.
The other two won half of the prize for their work with the phage display, in which a bacteriophage — a virus that is used to infect bacteria — is used to evolve new proteins. While credit for inventing the phage display goes to Smith, Winter used it to direct the evolution of antibodies, aiming to use them for the production of new pharmaceuticals. The first new pharmaceutical based on this method is called Adalimumab. It was approved in 2002 and has been used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. Since then, the phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.