Evolution is a powerful creative force—just look at the life all around us for evidence. And humanity has harnessed that creative process to produce tremendous variety in our domesticated animals and crops. But doing so has been a long-term project, involving many generations and the many years those occupy.
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to three researchers who figured out how to get evolutionary processes to work for us on the level of individual molecules and accelerate it to the point where the results were available in weeks or months rather than years. The results have included proteins that catalyze the formation of chemical bonds life has never created and antibodies that can bind to any molecule of our choosing. These results have already found their place in industrial production and medical treatments.
Half of the award goes to Frances Arnold of Caltech for the development of directed evolution of enzymes. The goal of directed evolution is to create an enzyme, or catalyst, that performs a chemical reaction of our choosing, even if that reaction is completely useless for the organism the enzyme evolves in. Arnold put together a process that in retrospect seems obvious but hadn’t been done systematically prior to her work.