California Institute of Technology │ Pasadena, California
For pioneering the development of directed protein evolution—a paradigm shift in the engineering of biological catalysts that mimics natural evolution in a laboratory setting and enables greener, less energy-intensive, and less polluting manufacturing processes.
Biofuels, prescription drugs, medical devices—they’re all products of a global chemical manufacturing industry in which Frances Arnold is a maker of makers. To create a chemical reaction that produces, say, a lifesaving drug, chemists often rely on starter substances called enzymes. They’re complex protein molecules notoriously difficult to produce and manage in the lab. Yet nature makes enzymes all the time, easily and precisely, using DNA, optimized for just the task over millions of years of evolution. By introducing random mutations into the DNA of bacteria and mimicking evolution in commercial-like lab settings, Arnold encourages the bacteria to evolve over time into enzyme manufacturing plants, producing precision-designed enzymes resistant to conditions in commercial lab settings that typically render enzymes impractical for commercialization. Her method, called “directed evolution,” made mass production viable and opened the door to medicines, biofuels, antibodies, consumer products, gene delivery systems, vaccines, and a world of products previously difficult, if not impossible, to make. Today, the Nobel Prize-winner and others who use the techniques she pioneered are shaping new solutions to the world’s grand challenges through more sustainable, less expensive chemical manufacturing.