QEPrize judge wins 2016 Millennium Technology Prize

25 May 2016


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Professor Arnold

QEPrize judge Frances Arnold, Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at Caltech, has been awarded the Millennium Technology Prize for her work in “directed evolution”.

The Millennium Technology Prize, worth one million euros, is the world’s most prominent award for technological innovation. Directed evolution, which uses nature’s design process, evolution, to create new and better proteins in the laboratory, was first pioneered in the early 1990s, and is a key factor in green technologies such as biofuels, paper products and agricultural chemicals. In the same way that breeders mate cats or dogs to bring out desired traits, scientists use directed evolution to create desired enzymes for use in industry.

"We can do what nature takes millions of years to do in a matter of weeks," says Arnold. "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."

The technique works by forcing mutations in the DNA that codes for a particular enzyme, producing thousands of mutated enzymes. These are then tested for a desired trait and the top-performing enzymes are selected; the process is repeated to further enhance the enzyme's performance. In 2009, Arnold and her team engineered enzymes that could break down cellulose, the main component of plant-cell walls, speeding up the process of turning agricultural wastes into fuels and chemicals.

In the QEPrize Create the Future report last year, Arnold said, “When I want to see creativity in action, I look to the biological world- the ‘internet of living things’ of which we are just a small part. Evolution innovates in wonderful ways, and shows us how small steps can lead to big and often surprising changes in the machinery of life.”

“Even more exciting, we can use evolution as an algorithm for forward engineering, creating efficient biological solutions to pressing problems in energy and sustainability such as replacing fossil fuel resources with renewable ones, or replacing ‘dirty’ chemical processes with cleaner, biological ones.”

Today, directed evolution is at work in hundreds of laboratories and companies around the world, in everything from laundry detergents to medicines. Enzymes created using the technique have replaced toxic chemicals in many industrial processes.

Professor Arnold received her undergraduate degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton University in 1979, before going on to study chemical engineering at UC Berkeley. She arrived at Caltech as a visiting associate in 1986, and over the following 15 years made her way up through the ranks of professorship, becoming the Dickinson Professor in 2000.

Alongside being the first woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize, Arnold is the recipient of numerous awards, including in 2011 the Charles Stark Draper Prize, the engineering profession's highest honour, and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Arnold is also the first woman to be elected to all three branches of the National Academies in America; the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences.

"I certainly hope that young women can see themselves in my position someday. I hope that my getting this prize will highlight the fact that yes, women can do this, they can do it well, and that they can make a contribution to the world and be recognized for it," says Arnold.

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