Frances Arnold

Millennium Technology Prize


By bringing evolution into the laboratory, and guiding and accelerating it, scientists have created new (protein catalysts known as) enzymes to improve drug manufacturing, biofuels, crops and more. This method of “directed evolution” was pioneered by Dr Frances Arnold, who won the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of technology, for her work.

The globally-used technique involves introducing random mutations into a protein’s DNA code, which instructs a microbe to produce proteins with new properties. Scientists then comb through the results, select the useful ones, and repeat the process until they obtain new proteins that meet their needs. 

“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 use it to make things that no human knows how to design,” Dr Arnold said after winning the technology prize.

Her breakthrough moment came in the early 1990s, when she was frustrated by the failure of her efforts to improve enzymes. “I decided to try thousands of experiments at once, because our single ones never succeeded. I made thousands of mutations, all over the protein, and looked to see which ones made it better. We accumulated improvements over several generations to get to the desired function,” she has said. 

Directed evolution has since produced an enzyme used to replace heavy metals in the making of Januvia, a popular drug for type 2 diabetes. In 2017, scientists created a new enzyme that could improve crops’ growth and yield. Other laboratory-evolved enzymes have been used in glucose sensors for diabetes, laundry detergents, food processing and more.

Dr Arnold is now the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the United States, and director of the university’s Donna and Benjamin M Rosen Bioengineering Centre. She also co-founded Gevo, a renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company, and Provivi, which makes natural biochemicals that reduce toxic pesticide use in agriculture. 

She was the first woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize, and has broken the glass ceiling in other ways. She was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering, and to be admitted to all three US National Academies (for sciences, engineering and medicine).

“I think in the next few years we will see new drugs, agricultural chemicals and many products that we use in our daily lives being made cleanly and efficiently using biology,” she said after winning the Millennium Technology Prize. “We will have products that we can’t even imagine now.”