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Top technology Prize recognizes the impact of directed evolution in green growth
Posted on June 8th, 2016 by Christina Valimaki in New Materials & Applications
Last month, Technology Academy Finland (TAF) declared US innovator Dr. Frances Arnold as winner of the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize for her pioneering work on “directed evolution.” The Prize, worth one million euros ($1.1M), is the world’s largest technology award, and is given once every two years in partnership by the Finnish State and TAF—an independent fund established by Finnish industry.
Directed evolution (DE) is a protein-engineering methodology that mimics natural selection in the lab, in order to develop “evolved” version of proteins or nucleic acids that are designed for specific purposes. In some of its applied uses, it has served to create new enzymes for industrial catalysis or for the generation of fuel from sugars. In its announcement of the 2016 Price Winner, TAF recognized Prof. Arnold’s discoveries launching the field, stating that “thanks to directed evolution, sustainable development and clean technology become available in many areas of industry that no longer have to rely on non-renewable raw materials.”
Unlike the Nobel Prize, which is a science award recognizing breakthroughs in basic research, the Millennium Technology Prize is a technology award given to recently conceived innovations that enhance quality of people’s lives in a sustainable manner. Designed to stimulate further cutting-edge technological research and development, the prize may be awarded to innovations that are still being developed.
Frances Arnold is the “Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry” at the California Institute of Technology, Caltech. She earned a B.S. in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Princeton University, and a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. An outstanding role model for women in engineering fields, she holds numerous other awards in science, technology, and innovation, and has the distinctive honor of having been elected to all three US National Academies: the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.
At Caltech, Prof. Arnold’s field of research is green and alternative energy, with a focus on the development of highly active microorganisms and cellulolytic/biosynthetic enzymes, able to convert renewable biomass into fuels and other chemicals of commercial interest. She is credited as a co-inventor on numerous patents, and has brought some of her findings to industrial applications by co-founding Gevo, Inc.—a renewable chemicals and advanced biofuels company—in 2005.
Gevo has developed bio-based alternatives to petroleum-based products by using a multidisciplinary approach that combines synthetic biology and chemistry. It produces isobutanol, a platform chemical with broad-market applications as a solvent, and also a gasoline blend-stock that can help refiners switch to the use of renewable fuels and meet clean air obligations. The company has a fermentation facility in Minnesota for the production of isobutanol, ethanol, and related products (like protein-rich animal feed), and went on to open in 2011 a bio-refinery that converts isobutanol into hydrocarbon products like jet fuel, iso-octane, and ingredients for polyester. “Isobutanol is not a natural product, but we evolved an enzyme that makes it possible to convert plant sugars to this precursor to jet fuel,” Prof. Arnold told the BBC before travelling to Helsinki for the award ceremony, “so this company is producing jet fuel from renewable resources.”
She also explained how the basic principle to harness evolution-like processes to create better enzymes started in her lab, over two decades ago:
I figured out that this should be the algorithm for forward design, for making new biological code that is useful to humans. I came in… from basically nowhere. That research was being done by biochemists and protein scientists – molecular biologists. And I was a chemical engineer. I basically knew nothing about the field. Otherwise I probably wouldn’t have done it, because I would have known how hard it was.
Prof. Arnold is the first woman receiving the Millennium Technology Prize since its inauguration in 2004. Congratulations!
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