Inspired by nature: First woman ever wins Millennium Technology Prize

Frances Arnold, a biochemical engineer, has won the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize for developing 'directed evolution,' a method to produce useful enzymes from renewable resources.

Heikki Saukkomaa/Lehtikuva/AP
US biochemical engineer Frances Arnold (r.) receives her Millennium Technology Prize 2016 from Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the awards ceremony in Helsinki, Finland, on Tuesday.

Frances Arnold's pioneering work in "directed evolution" has revolutionized medicine production, industrial chemicals, and even been used to make jet fuel from sugars. And now she has become the first woman to receive the $1.2-million Millennium Technology Prize.

The prize has been awarded every two years since 2004 by the Technological Academy of Finland.

Dr. Arnold called the natural world "the very best inventor and engineer of all time" in her acceptance speech in Helsinki on Tuesday. 

"The biological world is the most spectacular example of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, problem-solving – nature's been doing that for several billion years," she said. "We humans with our technologies are way behind."

Arnold, a chemical engineer and bioengineer at the California Institute of Technology, first harnessed evolution to create a way to engineer proteins for human use two decades ago.

"Directed evolution" mimics natural selection in the lab. Much like humans have bred pets and livestock for beneficial traits over generations, Arnold found that she could direct the evolution of small segments of DNA and the proteins they encode. Through this process, scientists can direct the process to create an enzyme with the desired properties. 

The method is now used worldwide to create valuable enzymes.

For example, "directed evolution" is now used to produce an enzyme needed to manufacture Januvia, a diabetes drug. Without Arnold's method, that enzyme would be produced in a chemical process using heavy metals. 

"They replaced a chemical process with an enzymatic process, thereby completely eliminating toxic metals that were needed... and getting solvent waste reduction of 60%," Arnold told the BBC.

This technique can also be used to produce other chemicals and fuels from renewable sources. 

Arnold has co-founded a company called Gevo to harness this "green" chemistry.

"We evolved an enzyme that makes it possible to convert plant sugars to this precursor to jet fuel," Arnold said. "So this company is producing jet fuel from renewable resources."

Jarl-Thure Eriksson, committee chairman for the Millennium Prize, said that Arnold was the clear choice among 79 candidates that were nominated for the prize. "From the start of her career she has been a pioneer in a previously male-dominated field," he said. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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