Some noteworthy aspects of the Nobel prize winners in chemistry

The Nobel prizes in Chemistry were awarded last week for discoveries that enabled scientists to speed up the process of evolution and thus produce treatments for various diseases.

For thousands of years, humans have been selectively breeding crops and animals to tinker with the genetic makeup of their future generations in humankind’s favor. The three new laureates have used modern molecular-based methods to re-create this process in the laboratory and therefore speed the process up considerably.

“This year’s prize in chemistry rewards a revolution based on evolution. Our laureates have applied the principles of Darwin in test tubes and used this approach to develop new types of chemicals for the greatest benefit of humankind,” said Claes Gustafsson, chairman of the Nobel committee for chemistry 2018 and a professor at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.

The scientists have pioneered techniques in a process known as “directed evolution,” which creates new proteins by using processes which simulate natural selection. A gene is re-created many, many times, which creates a library of variants that are then used inside test tube organisms to see which variant is the best.

“Our laureates this year have been able to direct evolution, to steer it, which has led to new chemicals that can be used in everything from environmentally friendly detergents to the creation of new biofuels and pharmaceuticals,” said Gustafsson.

The press release announcing the award described their work

One half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Frances H. Arnold. In 1993, she conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

The other half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is shared by George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. In 1985, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Gregory Winter used phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first one based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced anti-bodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

Among the three was a woman Frances Arnold, just the fifth woman to win a prize in that category. But since the last female winner was fairly recently in 2009, this fact did not arouse as much attention as in physics where Donna Strickland was just the third woman to win the prize in physics and the last female winner was way back in 1963.

But there is another interesting personal story and that is about Smith. The political activism of most Nobel prize winning scientists is not usually noteworthy but Smith is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and a long-time supporter of Palestinian rights and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, activities that have aroused some opposition at his institution of the University of Missouri.

There is a sense that Smith’s laurels are being shared by Palestinians. Haaretz led its report on Smith by noting that he is a longtime supporter of Palestinian rights and he is listed on the Canary Mission website, which is dedicated to destroying careers of those who express solidarity with Palestinians.

Smith’s win was hailed by Palestinian BDS National Committee.

A Nobel Prize has been awarded to George P. Smith, a renowned scientist and longtime advocate for Palestinian rights who supports the BDS movement and has called for an end to US military aid to Israel. The BDS movement congratulates Professor Smith.

Dr. Samia Botmeh, Dean at Birzeit University in the occupied Palestinian West Bank and leading activist in the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), said:

“Congratulations to Professor George P. Smith for winning the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His principled commitments are evident in both his scientific work to protect human life and his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights.

“Professor Smith has consistently spoken out against Israel’s egregious violations of Palestinian human rights, and taken the extremely important step of calling on his government in the United States to end arms sales to the Israeli military. His call to end military aid to Israel is not only deeply principled, but a critical and effective form of solidarity that we hope to see multiplied. The US government should be investing in human needs, including health, education and dignified jobs, rather than giving Israel $3.8 billion in military aid a year to repress and destroy Palestinian life.

“Thank you Professor Smith for your inspiring solidarity.”

From all accounts, Smith is a humble person as can be seen from his statement after the prize announcement where he said that part of the reason for the success of his work was because he did not attempt to patent it and that enabled others to freely use and build on it.

“Phage display started in 1984 when I was on sabbatical at Duke,” Smith said. “By the mid-1990s our contribution to the technology was over and many others were taking over the application. … I put forth the technology. I was not smart enough to anticipate what would come out of this science.”

Smith called science a web of ideas. “It absolutely depends on lines of work that’s gone on before I happen to be in the right place at the right time. This today is, I’m getting an honor that has been earned by a whole bunch of other people.”

That collective aspect is almost always the case in science.


  1. jrkrideau says

    Must be a fake. I have it on the authority of no less than Ken Ham that there is no such thing as evolution.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    …the principles of Darwin in test tubes …

    Even by PR standards, this seems quite uninformative. Darwin’s core principle was, in a word, selection -- and we’ve had artificial selection for a lot longer than we’ve had science.

    I think they mean these scientists have found ways to increase genetic variation within specified ranges, and to analyze and select among the results of that variation. IANAChemist, but don’t recall hearing of chemists using biology so systematically: if Arnold, Smith, & Winter have really enabled applied interdisciplinary work on that scale, then they’ve earned the N-Prize and more.

    Smith’s political work, particularly at a time when Palestinians are suffering so much, is icing on the cake. I wonder -- queasily -- how the hasbara trolls will hound him for daring to become so famous.

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