Chemical Engineer Wins Millennium Technology Prize

Caltech’s Frances Arnold is honored for her work on directed evolution.

May 25, 2016
Tanya Lewis

Frances ArnoldWIKIMEDIA, BEAVERCHEME2Frances Arnold has won the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize in recognition of her work using evolutionary methods to develop better enzymes for industrial applications, BBC News reported yesterday (May 24). The €1 million ($1.12 million) prize is given every two years to honor technologies that “change people’s lives for the better,” according to Technology Academy Finland. Arnold, a chemical engineer at Caltech, is the first woman to win this award.

Just as humans have bred plants and animals for many generations to hone specific traits, Arnold and colleagues use evolution to produce proteins with desired characteristics.

“Evolution, to me, is the best designer of all time,” Arnold told the BBC before traveling to Helsinki, Finland, yesterday for the award ceremony. “And I figured out that this should be the algorithm for forward design, for making new biological code that is useful to humans.”

Arnold cofounded a company, Gevo, which develops green chemistry. Her team has used directed evolution to create an enzyme to produce isobutanol, a precursor to jet fuel, from plant sugars. The process has also been used to create new enzymes for the pharmaceutical industry, including an enzyme that replaces heavy metals as a catalyst for manufacturing the common type 2 diabetes drug Januvia, the BBC reported.

Previous prizewinners include World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Linux creator Linus Torvalds, and stem cell biologist Shinya Yamanaka, according to Phys.org.