US engineer Frances Arnold has won the Millennium Technology Prize for pioneering "directed evolution". By driving a sped-up version of natural selection in the lab, the method has created new enzymes for industrial catalysts, household detergents, and even to make rocket fuel from sugar. The 1m ( 0.8m) prize is awarded biennially and Prof Arnold is the first female winner in its 12-year history. The Technology Academy Finland, which presents the prize, said the deliberations began in November 2015 but that "there was only one outstanding candidate". Prof Arnold, from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), spoke to the BBC before travelling to Helsinki for Tuesday's ceremony.
Caltech biochemical engineer Frances Arnold has become the first woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize for her pioneering work on so-called directed evolution. Inspired by the biological processes that drive natural selection, Arnold launched a field that revolutionized protein engineering -- allowing researchers to design more effective drugs and to create cleaner industrial processes. Arnold, who began her career in renewable energy, has spent a lot of time thinking about the damage humans are doing to the environment. By mixing up DNA in test tubes and putting it into microbes that pump out specialized proteins, Arnold aims in part to create cleaner, more environmentally friendly methods to make the everyday products we use. The scientist draws from many fields to do her research, and consequently has been elected to all three branches of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine – making her the first woman to achieve this rare feat.
Thanks to proteins from Icelandic bacteria, scientists at Caltech have managed to coax microbes into making silicon-carbon bonds, a feat that until now has been achieved only by humans in the lab. The findings, published last week in the journal Science, could open the door to new avenues in organic chemistry and drug development -- and could help scientists investigate essential mysteries, such as whether life could be based on silicon instead of carbon on other planets. "My whole interest is, how do you use evolution as an innovation engine?" said senior author Frances Arnold, a chemist at Caltech. "How does evolution solve new problems that life faces? And to have a system that can create a whole new chemical bond that biology hasn't done before, to me, demonstrates the power of nature to innovate."
As a female chemical engineer, Frances Arnold was already a rarity. After all, only about 16 percent of chemical engineers are women. But now that she has become the first woman ever to win the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize -- it was awarded in Helsinki, Finland, on May 24 -- Arnold is truly one of a kind. And she knows that in addition to a big cash award (1 million euros, or about 1.3 million), the prize brings an opportunity to spotlight the gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers and to be a role model for other women. "I hope that my getting this prize will highlight the fact that yes, women can do this, they can do it well, and that they can make a contribution to the world and be recognized for it," Arnold told The Huffington Post in an email.
Thinking like Darwin won three scientists the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday. By bringing evolution into the lab, these chemists developed new proteins that have allowed us to develop greener manufacturing techniques and renewable biofuels, as well as drug therapies for autoimmune diseases and some cancers. "This year's prize in chemistry rewards a revolution based on evolution," said Göran K. Hansson, secretary general of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences when announcing the honorees. "They applied principles of Darwin in the test tubes and used this to develop new chemicals for the benefit of humankind." The Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded half the prize to Frances Arnold at the California Institute of Technology for her pioneering work in the directed evolution of enzymes.