This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to three people

I’m a day late to the party for this one, especially because one prize went to a woman who worked in “directed evolution”. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2018 was awarded to three people: Frances H. Arnold (half share), George P. Smith (quarter share) and Gregory P. Winter (quarter share). Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; Smith is an emeritus professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, and Winter a biochemist at the M.R.C. Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England.

Arnold is the fifth woman to earn the Chemistry Prize, but I’m hoping that as women enter the sciences more, it won’t be remarkable enough to single them out as the “xth woman to win the Prize.” I thought, as did some readers, that it might go to Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, but it wasn’t their time. But that will come, even if CRISPR doesn’t prove to be a useful tool in genetically engineering humans.

Here’s the New York Times article about the Prize.

The Nobel press release is more specific:

One half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Frances H. Arnold. In 1993, she conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

The other half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is shared by George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. In 1985, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Gregory Winter used phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first one based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced anti-bodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

We are in the early days of directed evolution’s revolution which, in many different ways, is bringing and will bring the greatest benefit to humankind.

For a closer look at the work of Dr. Arnold, here’s a writeup in Science from 1994 by the journalist Faye Flam, which, although somewhat dated, does explain the main thrust of this work: the application of Darwinian evolution to molecules. At that involves mutating genes that produce enzymes (often with the enzyme engineered into bacteria) and then using a selection process to get to the molecule you want.

Nobody was even close to guessing the winners of this year’s three science prizes, so, as usual, there will be no winner of my contest.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:15 am | Permalink


  2. Bruce Lilly
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:24 am | Permalink

    Second paragraph typo s/there/their/.

  3. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    “We are in the early days of >>>directed evolution<<>><<< and run with it.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:36 am | Permalink

      Oh no – computational illiteracy – I am bad.

      I’ll have to fix it later.

      [crying embarrassed emoji]

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    (This comment is to replace my botched comment up above)

    “We are in the early days of directed evolution’s revolution which”

    I am just waiting to hear thinkers of a certain stripe seize upon the term “directed evolution”, and run with it. I don’t even want to say what they could come up with.

    Website-Technical note: I tried to emphasize using triple > and <. It did not work. I apologize for taking the computationally illiterate approach.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted October 4, 2018 at 9:15 am | Permalink

      I must admit that’s the first thing I thought when I saw ‘directed evolution’. It did sound a bit like one version of intelligent design.

      But I would certainly deny being a thinker ‘of a certain stripe’ 🙂


      • mikeyc
        Posted October 4, 2018 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        We’ve been doing directed evolution for millennia. We often call it agriculture.

        • Mark R.
          Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

          Are you thinking directed evolution is synonymous with selective breeding? When you said “agriculture” I thought “dog breeds”.

          • mikeyc
            Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            “Directed evolution” in a very narrow sense refers to a bio-engineering solution to a problem. But in a larger sense, what it means is that humans have established a goal they want from a biological system – an enzyme that has higher activity or better specificity, for example. This is done in the narrow sense, by taking advantage of the power of genetic diversity followed by selection to design the new enzyme (e.g. one of the main drivers of Evolution) which, over time, will yield an enzyme with a better Kd.

            That is essentially what farmers (of both plants and animals) have been doing for centuries – they wanted wheat that survives drought better, they wanted tulips with just the right shade of red, they wanted cows to make more milk….. They didn’t have a name for what they were doing, but Charlie D came up with one -and he described how it works unsupervised in nature.

            • Mark R.
              Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

              OK, many thanks for the clarification.

            • Zetopan
              Posted October 7, 2018 at 6:12 am | Permalink

              And the irony that creations invariably miss is shown by creationist Ray “banana man” Comfort, who used to claim that his gawd “designed” bananas to exactly fit the human hand.

              That is until it was pointed out to him perhaps a thousand times that humans used selective breeding to create the modern banana!

    • Zetopan
      Posted October 7, 2018 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      @ThyroidPlanet: “I am just waiting to hear thinkers of a certain stripe seize upon the term “directed evolution”, and run with it.”

      Your wait was over even before it started. The only times that the creationists read scientific literature is not to understand the science, but rather when looking for science information that they can distort into creationist apologetics material.

      Sure enough, David Klinghoffer of the Discovery Institute[*] whines about the Nobel Prize. He claims that the authors didn’t use evolution at all, they actually used “intelligent design”[**].

      It’s a good thing that we have scientific illiterates available to explain how Nobel winners do not really understand science at all.

      *The only thing that they ever “discover” is always their own behind, which is where they extract their idiot ideas.

      **They keep using that word “Intelligent” while obviously not having even the smallest clue about what that word actually means.

  5. Steve Pollard
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    There have been some nice interviews with Sir Gregory Winter in today’s UK media. As Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he woke up yesterday with a hangover to be told he’d won the Nobel: “I was recovering from a college feast and it came as a bit of a shock. It’s like you’re in a slightly different universe”

    Today’s Times points out that Trinity now has 33 Nobel laureates. If it was a country it would be fifth in the international table. It also mentions that the MRC Molecular Biology Lab, where Winter spent most of his career, has 12 Nobel laureates, including nine for chemistry, “one fewer than all of France”.

    Perhaps we Brits are still good at a few things, after all.

  6. Posted October 4, 2018 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Looks like another chemistry prize that could have also been physiology-or-medicine. When are all those folks working on rhodium gonna get respect? 😉

  7. Chadwick Jones
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    You can get free posters of the Nobel winners in Physics, Chemistry, Economics.

    Yes, free! Mailed to you.

    In size A3 and/or 70×100 cm.

  8. lun
    Posted October 4, 2018 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    It should be mentioned that Stephen Smith, one of the winners, was subjected to Campus censorship by people too afraid of controversial ideas. Through in this case, I suspect Jerry Coyne would disagree with these ideas and find the censorship acceptable.

    His most controversial moment came in 2015 when he attempted to teach an honors tutorial outside his academic field called “Perspective on Zionism.” The course was to have included as a central text “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” by Israeli historian and anti-Zionist Ilan Pappe, according to a report in the Columbia Daily Tribune that quoted Smith as defining his position as wishing “not for Israel’s Jewish population to be expelled,” but “an end to the discriminatory regime in Palestine.” He is opposed, he said, to “Jewish ethnic sovereignty over other peoples.”

    Following protests by university alumni, pro-Israel student groups and an outcry by pro-Israel advocacy groups, his course was canceled, the cancellation attributed to “a lack of enrollment.”

    • Posted October 5, 2018 at 4:27 am | Permalink

      This is a gratuitous insult and you will apologize or leave this site. I’ve repeatedly said that people have the right to say what they want on campus, including anti-Semites and those who hate Israeli policy. So no, your suspicions may be wrong. I can’t read the details of this allegation because the article is behind a paywall, but I’ve also said that whether or not professors can teach a course depends on what’s in it, and whether they’re teaching a good overview of the topic. Professors are not, for example,vautomatically entitled to teach creationism in a biology course.

      I don’t know how Stephen Smith was “censored,” but your suspicion that I “would find the censorship acceptable” is simply a gratuitous slur. If Smith was going after Israel and promoting BDS on his own time, I’d of course say he had the right to do it. If he was teaching grossly unbalanced views in his class, or promoting anti-Semitism, then that’s up to his university to judge if he was teaching a proper course.

      Now you will apologize for that slur or leave this site for good. You have no right to tell others what you think I would do in a given case.

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