Darwin in a test tube

US scientists Frances Arnold and George Smith and British researcher Gregory Winter won the 2018 Nobel Chemistry Prize  for applying the principles of evolution to develop proteins used in everything from new biofuels to to the world’s best-selling drug.

Arnold, just the fifth woman to clinch chemistry’s most prestigious honour since Marie Curie was honoured in 1911, won one half of the nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.01 million or 870,000 euros) award, while Smith and Winter shared the other half.

Background

Life on Earth exists because over the past 3.7 billion years organisms have adapted to their environment, with evolution solving complex chemical problems: fish can for example swim in polar oceans because they have antifreeze proteins in their blood.

The trio used the principles of evolution—genetic change and selection—to develop proteins now used in a range of fields, in what is known as directed evolution. They have applied the principles of Darwin in test tubes. They have used the molecular understanding we have of the evolutionary process and recreated the process in their labs. They have been able to make evolution many 1000s of times faster and redirect it to create new proteins.