Green fuel-enabling protein research takes Nobel prize for chemistry

Engineering custom-designed proteins has had a major impact on medicine, detergents, catalysis and biofuels

green fuel
Lesft to right, Winter, Smith and Arnold

A British scientist is among the three recipients of this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize, recognising research that has had an impact across many engineering-related industrial sectors. Sir Gregory Winter, Master of Trinity College Cambridge and formerly deputy director of the Medical Research Council’s laboratory of Molecular Biology, shares the prize with Frances Arnold of Caltech and George P Smith of the University of Wisconsin. Arnold is credited with half the prize, while Winter and Smith share the other half.

The prize recognises the trio’s work in techniques which use evolution to create new enzymes and antibodies with designed and useful properties. Francis Arnold is credited with the first ever “directed evolution” of enzymes, by introducing genetic mutations in bacteria that express the enzyme to create multiple variants. She then screened these variants for useful properties, such as the ability to operate in an organic solvent rather than in an aqueous solution. Such enzymes are now routinely used for more environmentally friendly production of synthetic chemicals.

Arnold is the second female Nobel laureate to be announced this year, following Donna Strickland’s share of the physics prize announced on October 2, 2018. Female chemistry laureates are not as rare as physics laureates, although Arnold is only the fifth in the award’s history, after Ada Yonath who won the prize for her work in elucidating the structure of ribosomes in 2009; Dorothy Hodgkin, who won for her pioneering work in crystallography in 1964; and Irene Joliot-Curie who won for discovering artificial radioactivity in 1935. Joliot-Curie’s mother Marie Curie won for discovering radium and polonium in 1911. Marie Curie remains the only woman to have won two Nobel prizes and the only person to be a laureate in two different sciences.

Smith and Winter’s share of the prize recognises their discovery of a technique known as phage display, which uses a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – to evolve new proteins. Smith discovered the technique, genetically engineering bacteriophages by inserting unknown genes into their DNA that would express proteins on their surface, where the structure could be observed and analysed. Winter developed how to harness this method to direct the evolution of new antibodies that could bind to biological targets. This has found applications in the design and development of new drugs; the first of these to hit the market, adalimumab, has revolutionised the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and psoriasis. Other antibodies developed using this technique are active against toxins, autoimmune diseases and metastatic cancer cells.

Commenting on the award, Prof Fiona Watt, chair of the Medical Research Council, said: “The pioneering breakthrough work by Sir Greg and his colleagues at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology to develop humanised, and human, therapeutic antibodies has initiated a pharmaceutical revolution and led to the establishment of a whole new class of drugs which have helped millions of patients worldwide.”

Prof Dame Carol Robinson, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, paid tribute to all three researchers. “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.”

UCL Prof of inorganic chemistry Andrea Sella noted that for many years the cutting edge of chemistry research has focused on the boundary between chemistry and biology. “In parallel with the growth of traditional chemistry was the rise of biochemistry and molecular biology, but also of geochemistry and lots of solid state physics, all of which came to rely on the methods and tools that were being developed by chemists,” he said. ” People with chemistry degrees are everywhere from forensics labs to electrical engineering departments.”