“We share deep admiration for evolution, a force of Nature that has led to the finest chemistry of all time, and to all living things on this planet.”
Frances Arnold is a chemical engineer who was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her work on directed evolution of enzymes.
Arnold received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton University and a doctorate in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. She spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley before arriving at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as a visiting associate. She was soon promoted to assistant professor and has remained at Caltech ever since, rising to full professor within a decade. She was named to an endowed chair in 2000.
At Caltech, Dr. Arnold pioneered methods of “directed evolution” to create new proteins not found in nature. At first, she followed established practice, attempting to induce specific mutations in DNA molecules to achieve predetermined results. She came to realize that this process could expend decades of work without achieving any significant results. Dr. Arnold decided to use a different approach, that of evolution. She and her coworkers extended the technique of directed enzyme evolution to change enzymes for reactions that no enzyme had catalyzed before. They also evolved enzymes to make substances with bonds that do not occur in biology. Publication of Dr. Arnold’s work in 1993 created a sensation in the scientific community and placed her at the forefront of her field.
Her laboratory has generated novel and useful enzymes and organisms for applications in medicine, neurobiology, chemical synthesis, and alternative energy. She and her team have constructed entire synthetic families of enzymes and other proteins to study the relationship of structure and function outside of the normal patterns of natural selection. Her work has led to the production of enzymes that function in airless environments, enabling the production of biofuels without reliance on expensive air-circulating equipment. She co-founded the biofuel company Gevo in 2005 and a second company, Provivi, in 2013 to develop green biocatalytic processes for agricultural and specialty chemicals.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Dr. Arnold received the Charles Stark Draper Prize and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.