November 19, 2018

Trio win Nobel Chemistry Prize for evolution research

03 October 2018, 06:24 | Silvia Roy

Frances Arnold, George Smith and Gregory Winter will get the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2018.

"At first glance it may seem that the Chemistry Nobel has been "biologised" again".

The medicine prize was awarded Monday to American and Japanese researchers.

FILE PHOTO: Frances Arnold, Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry, California Institute of Technology, participates in the Investing in the Future: Accelerating the Clean-Tech Revolution panel at the 2008 Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills, California April 30, 2008.

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All three scientists took Charles Darwin's idea of natural selection, in which molecules or organisms accumulate mutations in a slow, random process, and figured out ways to identify and select specific mutations that improve the ability of molecules such as proteins and enzymes-workhorses that cells use to carry out all their basic functions-to attach to and change still other molecules.

Winter, of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, then harnessed that method and used it to direct the evolution of new antibodies - immune proteins that bind to and neutralize pathogens such as bacteria or viruses - with the aim of making new drugs.

Nobel chemistry laureate George Smith, reached at his home in Columbia, Missouri, was quick to credit the work of others in his prize. Medications for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel diseases have come from their work.

"Very few research breakthroughs are novel".

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He built up a collection of phages, with billions of antibody varieties on their surface, and engineered them make them more effective. "It's happenstance. That was certainly the case with my work", he said. "Mine was an idea in a line of research that built very naturally on the lines of research that went before". "But there was so much static on the line, I knew it wasn't any of my friends", he said. Smith realised that this could be handy: for example if it wasn't known what protein a particular gene gave rise to, it could be put into a phage and the mystery protein would appear on the surface and could be identified.

The next Nobel, the Peace Prize, will be announced on Friday.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences acknowledged the role that evolution principles played in all this year's recipients' work. Donna Strickland, from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, shared the physics award on Tuesday.

The 9-million-kronor ($1.01 million) chemistry prize is the last of this year's scientific Nobel Prizes. Chemistry is the third of this year's Nobel Prizes after the winners of the medicine and physics awards were announced earlier this week.

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