Biochemical engineer Frances Arnold received the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize for her discoveries that launched the field of ‘directed evolution’, which mimics natural evolution to create new and better proteins in the laboratory. This technology uses the power of biology and evolution to solve many important problems, often replacing less efficient and sometimes harmful technologies. Thanks to directed evolution, sustainable development and clean technology become available in many areas of industry that no longer have to rely on non-renewable raw materials.
Arnold’s innovations have revolutionized the slow and costly process of protein modification, and today her methods are being used in hundreds of laboratories and companies around the world. Modified proteins are used to replace processes that are expensive or that utilize fossil raw materials in the production of fuels, paper products, pharmaceuticals, textiles and agricultural chemicals.
With directed evolution it is possible to create proteins with useful properties that would not develop without human intervention. Frances Arnold’s method generates random mutations in the DNA – just as it happens in nature. The modified genes produce proteins with new properties, from which the researcher can choose the useful ones, repeating the process until the level of performance needed by industry is achieved.
Green chemistry and revolutionary medicines
The awarded technology is being adopted for example in areas of green chemistry and renewable energy. Directed evolution is used to improve enzymes that convert cellulose or other plant sugars to biofuels and chemicals. The facilitation of a green chemical industry, based on renewable raw materials and biotechnology, has in fact been one of Arnold’s greatest goals.
Arnold’s innovation has been used widely also to create enzyme catalysts to manufacture pharmaceuticals. The method has already resulted in more efficient processes for making numerous medicines, including a treatment for type 2 diabetes.