And the Nobel goes to...evolution!
Left to right: 2018 Nobel winners George Smith, Frances Arnold, and Gregory Winter
Last month, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science announced that this year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry would go to Frances Arnold (currently at the California Institute of Technology), George Smith (University of Missouri), and Gregory Winter (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK) for innovations that are being used to fine-tune manufacturing processes to reduce environmental harm, produce new renewable fuels, and build pharmaceuticals that harness the power of the body's own immune system to fight disease. Their inspiration? Evolution by natural selection.
Where's the evolution?
Arnold, Smith, and Winter pioneered using the principle of natural selection in a laboratory environment (a technique called directed evolution) to build new molecules that perform a particular job. In Arnold's case, her breakthrough research demonstrated how to use the technique to tweak an enzyme that normally works only in water so that it worked in a different liquid. Smith and Winter's work was deployed to build antibodies that attach to particular proteins or cells that cause disease.
To understand why directed evolution is so innovative, it will help to consider two other possible ways of building new molecular structures: natural selection and rational design. Rational design is what engineers mainly use to build large structures like buildings and bridges. The designer determines what functions the structure will need to serve (e.g., supporting 4000 cars and withstanding a magnitude 7 earthquake), and uses an understanding of physics and materials science to logically reason out a design that will do that. However, building molecules that serve particular functions is, in some ways, more difficult than building bridges that do. Our understanding of the rules of molecular design is inhibited by an inability to directly observe interactions at such a small scale and by the challenge of predicting exactly how the laws of physics and chemistry will play out among the hundreds or thousands of individual amino acids that might form a protein molecule. This makes it hard to solve molecular challenges using rational design.
Natural selection, on the other hand, requires no designer. The natural environment presents organisms with a set of challenges and constraints. Random mutations provide organisms with genetic variation that might (or might not) help solve those problems. Individuals carrying mutations that happen to make them better at dealing with the environment's challenges are more likely to produce offspring and pass those genetic variants on. As mutations continue to occur on the already favored genetic background and undergo selection by the environment, these solutions are fine-tuned. Natural selection produces molecules that are excellent at performing their jobs: hemoglobin effectively carries oxygen throughout our bodies, amylases break down carbohydrates into forms we can absorb and get energy from, actin and myosin form filaments that interact with one another to make our muscles work...the list goes on and on. However, natural selection works well only because population sizes are often very large and selection can occur over millions and millions of generations, enabling the testing of a myriad of variants that might solve any given challenge. And of course, natural selection only generates solutions to problems posed by the natural environment. It does not work to improve industrial manufacturing processes, make our cars run more efficiently, or cure diseases of the elderly.
Arnold, Smith, and Winter, however, figured out how to harness the principles of natural selection to work for us. Arnold's breakthrough work elegantly demonstrates how directed evolution tweaks the steps of undirected natural selection to make the process work in a laboratory, in a reasonable length of time, to solve a problem of our choosing:
Greg Winter used a similar approach (along with work by George Smith) to iteratively vary and then select antibodies, proteins produced by the immune system to help defend the body from invaders. His company used this technique to produce the first drug based on human antibodies, adalimumab, which is used to treat conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. Similar techniques are being used to develop antibodies that fight cancer, neutralize anthrax, and slow Alzheimer's disease. Meanwhile, Frances Arnold continues her work with directed evolution. She's currently working on enzymes to produce biofuels, environmentally-friendly plastics, and maybe eventually, products built from carbon absorbed from the atmosphere.
Scientists who harness the power of evolution are using it to produce remarkable, life- and planet-changing innovations. But that should come as no surprise to students of the biological world, where we can observe the impressive products of plain old undirected evolution everywhere: animals uniquely suited to their diverse environments, microbes that perform feats of survival and chemistry, and of course, plants that use sunlight to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produce both oxygen and food – testaments to the myriad of problems that can be solved with nothing more than heredity, variation, selection, and time. We human problem solvers have finally caught on.
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