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Biochemical Engineer Frances Arnold wins 2016 Millennium Technology Prize

Professor Arnold has developed a fast new way to modify proteins. Her innovations enable the replacement of non-renewable and expensive raw materials with sustainable production in many areas of industry.
Arnold’s methods are being used in hundreds of laboratories and companies around the world.
Arnold’s methods are being used in hundreds of laboratories and companies around the world.

Technology Academy Finland TAF  has on Tuesday, 24 May, awarded the million-euro Millennium Technology Prize to Biochemical Engineer Frances Arnold from the United States. Arnold’s groundbreaking discovery launched the field of ‘directed evolution’, which mimics natural evolution to create new and better proteins in the laboratory. The method can be utilized in renewable energy and medicine production applications, for example.

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 ones that are useful for industry applications.

“Directed evolution allows us to circumvent our inability to explain how mutations affect protein behaviour, much less to predict beneficial ones. The most beautiful, complex, and functional objects on the planet have been made by evolution. We can now use evolution to make things that no human knows how to design. Evolution is the most powerful engineering method in the world, and we should make use of it to find new biological solutions to problems,” says Frances Arnold.

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.

Green chemistry and growth

Arnold developed her technology in order to engineer enzymes – proteins whose function in nature is to speed up, or catalyse, the conversion of chemical compounds.

“Directed evolution can be used in industries that utilize biotechnology, because biochemical reactions are based on enzymes,” cites Professor Jarl-Thure Eriksson, Chair of the International Selection Committee and Emeritus Professor of Tampere University of Technology.

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.

“My entire career I have been concerned about the damage we are doing to the planet and each other. Science and technology can play a major role in mitigating our negative influences on the environment. Changing behaviour is even more important, however; I feel that is easier when there are good, economically viable alternatives to harmful habits,” says Arnold.

The Millennium Technology Prize is a Finnish prize awarded in recognition of innovators of technologies that promote sustainable development and a better quality of life. The Prize is one of the world’s largest and most prestigious science and technology prizes and it is presented every other year by the independent Technology Academy Finland (TAF). The winning innovation is selected by the Board of the academy at the recommendation of the International Selection Committee.

"Awarding Frances Arnold’s innovation is indeed very timely, as a number of countries, including Finland, are aiming at clean technology and green growth”, says Professor Marja Makarow, the Chair of TAF.

The Millennium Technology Prize, recognizing major technological innovations, was awarded for the seventh time.

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Photo: Caltech

News submitted by: Tiina Leivo
Keywords: services and collaboration, millennium technology prize, evolution, biochemistry