Dr Frances Arnold, the American chemist and engineer who won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize for her work in pioneering directed evolution reveals more about her work. 

Dr Frances Arnold, the American chemist and engineer, won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize for her work in pioneering directed evolution. She is only the fifth female Nobel chemistry laureate since the prize was first awarded in 1901, and the only ever American woman to win in the subject, and the only woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize. She is the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

Directed evolution mimics natural evolution to create new and better proteins in the laboratory. This technology uses the power of biology and evolution to solve many important problems, often replacing less efficient and sometimes harmful technologies. Thanks to directed evolution, sustainable development and clean technology have become available in many areas of industry, meaning they no longer have to rely on non-renewable raw materials.

In 1993, Arnold conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. Dr Arnold’s innovations have revolutionised the slow and costly process of protein modification, and today her methods are being used in hundreds of laboratories and companies around the world. Modified proteins are used to replace processes that are expensive or that utilise fossil raw materials in the production of fuels, paper products, pharmaceuticals, textiles and agricultural chemicals.

Dr Arnold was the third innovator who has first been awarded the Millennium Technology Prize and then the Nobel Prize. To mark nominations opening for the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize, Dr Arnold answers questions ranging from the future of directed evolution, her concerns over the current US administration’s lack of respect for science, and whether women are breaking the glass ceiling in the worlds of science and technology.

What is the simple concept that you’d like regular non-scientists to understand about the work that you’re doing?

The simple concept is that if we can write the code of life we can do all the chemistry and make all the products that living systems do in a clean, sustainable, green way. In other words, nature is the best chemist on the planet, so why not use nature to do our chemistry for us?

You were right there at the beginning of the biotech revolution – has it progressed in the way you thought it would and what would you say has been the most impressive achievement to date?

The most impressive achievement is our ability to manipulate DNA, the code of life. This ability has grown enormously. We now have the tools to read, write and edit DNA. What we don’t know how to do is compose it, and that’s where evolution comes in. We still have to learn how to compose useful new programs for biological systems, but evolution can do it for us.

Like a lot innovators, you faced scepticism when you were first developing your technology. You said that there was a difference of opinion between science and engineering viewpoints. What do you think was the reason for that?

Well, it was a clash of cultures. The scientists wanted to understand everything before they built new enzymes. The engineers said, “Hell, let’s just move forward and use the methods that work.” And that’s evolution. After 30 years we’re still far from the understanding, although we’ve made some steps. In the meantime, directed evolution has made many useful enzymes.

There have been some incredible developments in terms of more natural products being made in a more sustainable way thanks to your pioneering research. What is your dream for this in the future?

My dream is that we will replace inefficient and toxic waste-producing chemistry with microbes, with biocatalysts that are clean, efficient and can use renewable resources to make chemicals and fuels. I think there’s no doubt it is possible, but it will take time, money, and political commitment – the last part is still missing.

One of your most fascinating developments is an enzyme that’s allowed you to convert plant sugars into the precursor to jet fuels. Is that scalable and does it mean that we’ll eventually have for example, 100% renewable aircraft fuel?

There are a number of companies selling renewable aircraft fuel. The problem is it’s very hard to compete with companies pumping oil out of the ground. Many renewable fuels ventures need more money to invest in building plants to scale up operations. Again, a commitment in terms of more ambitious renewable fuel targets by the international community, and government investment, could help give this a real push.

Directed evolution has led to the development of many medicines without the use of toxic metals in the production process, such as Januvia to treat diabetes, for example. Do you think we’ll see this happening more in the pharmaceutical industry?

Certainly. Almost all the major pharmaceutical companies are now using enzymes to make drugs. Not all of their drugs, but they’re all looking closely at this technology because it can replace toxic metals and other expensive and problematic materials used in the manufacturing processes. I think the big advance is that the chemical community – and that includes many chemical and pharma companies – now understands that you can evolve enzymes to perform chemistry that only humans thought they could do. Biology can make molecules even better than humans do.

You probably remember the story in December last year about a scientist in China who was gene editing embryos. Do you think we’re at a stage where that will become acceptable, or is it still too controversial?

I think, looking at history and the way these things unfold, it will become less and less controversial as the benefits are realised. In the future, people may look back and be surprised to see the opposition that exists today. The problem with this particular case is that there were very limited, if any, benefits derived from the gene editing and lots of possible downsides. So what happened in China was completely wrong. But, remember that people were nervous about in vitro fertilization, IVF, for example, and now it is used all over the world and has given children to millions of families. Lots of technologies that were once controversial have since become mainstream because the benefits are big. The issue is we have to understand these technologies better to know their downsides, and then introduce them when we are certain the benefits far outweigh the risks.

Are you concerned about a lack of respect for science by the current US administration?

I’m terrified at the lack of science fact-based discussion on many important issues that touch all of us. If you don’t have a rational basis for a discussion, and that rational basis is science, how can you move forward? I’m very distressed at the current administration’s lack of support for science, and how support has become politicised. There are many people in the government who are as distressed as I am.

Where else do you see the biggest threat to science? Is it from anti-science forces on the religious side or from a lack of serous public debate, for example?

I think it’s just from ignorance of how important science is to all of us. For all of these huge issues that we and our children are going to face, a big fraction of the solutions will have to come from better science and technology. Without science you don’t have technology and without technology you don’t have advances. And you won’t have solutions to feeding, housing, clothing, and caring for the health of ten billion people.

What do you think of the benefits of science prizes and what practical benefits have they given to you?

When I won the Millennium Prize there was a wonderful outpouring of interest in my field, of people becoming more aware of sustainable chemistry, of young people of course contacting me and reading more about this field. So I think it was a real boost and shot in the arm for a field that few people know about.

Are there still barriers facing women in science and technology? Do we still have a long way to go yet before we reach ideal “gender parity” in these fields?

I believe that women still face external barriers. However, other barriers are more self-imposed: lack of confidence or desire to work in such a competitive environment, and perhaps a lack of appreciation of how much science and technology contributes to society. Science is not for everyone; it takes a lot of time and devotion to become good at it, and the same is true for engineering. You have to love it. Most talented women have many opportunities, and whether they choose to pursue science or engineering depends on how they feel about their whole life experience, perhaps more so than men. Opportunities for women today are excellent, but there are challenges to having a family and competing at the highest levels that women often feel more acutely.

Do you feel that being one of the few women to win prizes like the Nobel and Millennium Technology Prize has increased your awareness of being a role model for women innovators? And what advice would you give to young female scientists starting out now?

Well, I’m not keen on the idea of role models per se because I think people have to find their own path, but I do like looking out and seeing a sea of faces of people who love science, with lots of women in it. My advice is be inspired by others, but follow your own path. And don’t leave this fun work just for the men.

You are only the fifth female Nobel chemistry laureate, the first American woman to win the prize, and the only woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize. Do you think we’ll see a steady stream of women winning prizes like the Nobel and Millennium Technology Prizes now?

I do, because there are more and more women doing science and they’re doing it really well. I was a very rare female engineer when I started out in the 70s. When I applied to Princeton in 1973, I think I was only the second woman who signed up for a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering. But now there are many wonderful senior women in the sciences and engineering, and they’re doing great work. They are also sitting on prize selection committees!

What do you think are the big challenges science still has to solve?

How do you feed, clothe, water and house ten billion people without destroying the planet? That takes chemistry. Electrons won’t feed people and they don’t house people. We need chemicals, materials, fuels, and food. How do we make those things without destroying the environment and the natural things that we find beautiful? How do we share the planet with wild animals, fish, birds, forests and other living things and still have a good quality of life? Those are the challenges we still need to find answers to.

The Millennium Technology Prize is awarded every two years for ground-breaking technological innovations that benefit millions of people around the world, highlighting the extensive impact of science and innovation on the well-being of society. The Prize is one million euros and is awarded by Technology Academy Finland, an independent foundation.

Nominations for the 2020 Millennium Technology Prize opened on 1 April 2019 and are accepted until 31 July 2019. More information is at millenniumprize.fi