Science & Technology

Explained: Works of 3 evolutionary scientists that got them a Nobel

One Briton and two American scientists bag the prestigious award for their work that is meant to create cleaner fuels and treat diseases

By Akshit Sangomla
Last Updated: Wednesday 03 October 2018
Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Frances H Arnold, George P Smith and Sir Gregory P Winter, the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018. Credit: Frances H Arnold, George P Smith and Sir Gregory P Winter, the three winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018. Credit:

The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, has been announced. One half of the prize has been awarded to Frances H Arnold for the directed evolution of enzymes and the other to George P Smith and Gregory P Winter for their work on the phage display of peptides and antibodies. Let’s understand their work.

Arnold’s work

Enzymes are biological catalysts which speed up biochemical reactions in human bodies. Arnold, who is currently at the California Institute of Technology in the United States, was the first to demonstrate directed evolution of enzymes to create new catalysts in 1993. Such new enzymes can be used to manufacture pharmaceuticals with less negative consequences on the environment and renewable bio fuels which can have a huge impact on the world’s transportation sector.

She has become the fifth woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Before her Ada E Yonath in 2009, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin in 1964, Irene Curie in 1935 and Marie Curie in 1911 had bagged this Nobel Prize. This is the first time in the history of Nobel Prizes that women have won both the physics and chemistry prizes. Donna Strickland won the Nobel Prize in physics on October 2 becoming the third woman to do so, after a 55-year hiatus.

Smith-Winter technique

Antibodies are proteins produced by the human body to fight foreign micro organisms which can cause disease and infection. Peptides are made up of amino acids and are smaller than regular proteins. They are often used to study the structure of other proteins and also create new antibodies.

Phage display is a technique by which a bacteriophage, a virus that infects bacteria, is used to produce new proteins.  Antibodies produced by this method have been used in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel diseases, autoimmune diseases and even metastatic cancer. Smith, who was the first to develop phage display in 1985, is currently at the University of Missouri in the US and Winter, who used it for the directed evolution of antibodies, works at the MRC laboratory of Molecular Biology in the United Kingdom (UK).

All the three laureates this year have understood the basic principles of evolution and applied them to hasten the process a thousand times, paving the way for the development of new chemical molecules.

180 people have won a Nobel for chemistry

A total of 180 individuals have now won the coveted prize in Chemistry for making “the most important chemical discovery or improvement”, as Alfred Nobel had mentioned in his final will instituting the Nobel prizes.

Frederick Sanger is the only person to have won the prize twice, in 1958 and 1980. He had won it in 1958 for his work on the structure of proteins, especially insulin. In 1980, he got it alongside Walter Gilbert for the determination of base sequences in nucleic acids which is an important part of the human genetic build up.

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