The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded once every two years, and this time, it was awarded to American biochemist Frances Arnold, along a €1 million prize.
The Millennium Technology Prize has a short history of 12 years, but this is the first time that it is awarded to a woman. It is a prize that aims to recognize scientists that have been able to contribute towards changing people’s lives in a significant and positive manner. Professor Frances Arnold was selected out of 79 nominees.
Her work comprises a complex chemical process that is similar to natural selection. It allows scientists to engineer enzymes that are important for many compounds and products. Enzymes are molecules that act upon chemical reactions, allowing them to either accelerate or catalyze.
— Finnish Embassy DC (@FinnEmbassyDC) May 24, 2016
The process of directed evolution
The first steps for developing the award-winning process were taken in her laboratory, about 20 years ago. She was inspired by evolution, as she stated that “evolution, to me, is the best designer of all time. And I figured out that this should be the algorithm for forward design, for making new biological code that is useful to humans.”
She noted that enzymes are formed rather than spontaneously created. Prof. Arnold took into consideration that in order to form new catalytic molecules, random mutations had to take place until a useful compound is created. That is the basic process of evolution, an “accumulation beneficial changes over multiple generations,” she stated.
The process occurs in organisms of all sizes, including plants, dogs, cows and humans. Prof. Arnold took the theory and applied it to smaller strands of DNA in order to synthesize useful proteins. As cells divide, each new cell carries a large part of the original cell’s DNA, but there are always slight variations each time the organism replicates. Prof. Arnold noted this and proceeded to force these changes into many cells, causing all sorts of mutations. Each gene copy is then transformed into a set of proteins. The useful ones are kept and the process repeats itself. Thousands of tests took place for useful compounds to surface. Although many colleagues implied that the method was “not scientific,” she just did not care, because the process worked.
Among the hundreds of proteins that she found through directed evolution, she managed to develop the main component for Januvia, an important Type-2 diabetes drug that otherwise would have to be synthesized from metal. Another protein found by Prof. Arnold is able to transform plant cellulose into glucose, and subsequently into fuel.
The most widely known fuel produced from plants is ethanol. Although it is, in fact, a biofuel, it creates way more issues than it solves. First, its yield is significantly low, as you need a large amount of water, fertilizer and labor to grow enough corn to produce enough fuel. A massive production of ethanol would also raise food prices, something Prof. Arnold regarded as unacceptable. Arnold noted the tests to convert cellulose into butanol, a similar but way more efficient molecule than ethanol. The issue is that butanol is toxic due to its composition and fuel is a way cheaper and easier-to-produce alternative.
The ideal result would be to obtain isobutanol. To do so, a great deal of cellulose-degrading enzymes are needed as it is the hardest step in producing any type of biofuel. The process has been accomplished, but its yield is still very low when compared to common fuel. The only feasible alternative was to keep synthesizing molecules until a useful strain was obtained.
She compared the process to breeding new strains of sheepdogs, by saving the useful strains and discarding the others.
Biological engineering at its core
What’s groundbreaking about the process designed by Prof. Arnold is that it is able to recreate enzymes that otherwise would have to be derived from metals and heavier materials. It is a greener and much sustainable alternative of chemical engineering, which is of great benefit for companies, manufacturers, buyers of products and, most importantly, the environment.
The choice to use evolution as a method of research is not a coincidence. Frances Arnold at first wanted to be a diplomat, but after the 1973 crisis caused by the oil embargo produced by the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries, the cost of the oil barrel increased foursome, causing U.S. prices to increase exponentially, as well as submerging the country in a fuel crisis. Frances then focused her attention towards developing alternative energy. She realized that renewable energy would be of the utmost importance in solving one of the world’s greatest problems: the dependency on fossil fuels and the imminent contamination of the biosphere. Prof. Arnold worked on solar energy and after getting her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Berkeley she focused on biofuels.
All the way through her career, Frances Arnold has held curiosity and perseverance as her weapons of choice. She has a realistic and creative approach towards scientific research.
“The biological world is the most spectacular example of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, problem-solving – nature’s been doing that for several billion years. We humans with our technologies are way behind,” she commented regarding the rules of composition of DNA, which are still widely unknown for the scientific community.