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Caltech Bioengineer Becomes First Woman To Covet $1.1 Million Millennium Technology Prize

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Thanks to her pioneering work on "directed evolution," a professor and engineer from California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has been awarded with the prestigious 2016 Millennium Technology Prize by Technology Academy Finland.

Now the world's first woman awardee of the $1.1 million (€ 1 million) prize, Professor Frances Arnold successfully created novel and better proteins in her laboratory through the revolutionary directed evolution method.

This very process, which was developed in the early 1990s, could rewrite DNA to improve pharmaceuticals as well as develop sustainable fuel, agricultural chemicals and paper products, among many others.

"This is a fabulous recognition and I'm very grateful for it," said Arnold.

Solving Problems With The Help Of Evolution

In the same way that breeders mate dogs to bring out certain traits, biochemists apply directed evolution to create improved enzymes.

Arnold believes that evolution is the "best designer" of all time. She figured out that this should be the algorithm to create new biological code that will be useful to humans.

She recalled that her research began from nowhere. She also acknowledged the fact that directed evolution is often done by biochemists and protein scientists while she was a chemical engineer.

But she still pushed through her ideas. Eventually, she came to realize that instead of breeding animals, directed evolution works precisely with small stretches of DNA and encoded proteins.

With that, Arnold's method mimics natural evolution in order to produce new and better enzymes — molecules that catalyze and facilitate chemical reactions.

"We can do what nature takes millions of years to do in a matter of weeks," said Arnold. "It's redesign by evolution."

Her method is now being applied to convert renewable resources such as sugar cane into biofuels. It also improves properties of everyday products such as dishwashing and laundry detergents.

Additionally, the process was used to improve the drug Januvia, which previously required wasteful processes in order to be made.

What's Next?

Arnold, who is a survivor of breast cancer and a mother of three sons, said she will spend part of her prize for her children's university education.

She has also co-founded a company named Gevo, which works on the field of "green chemistry."

The Millennium Technology Prize aims to be the technology equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Science. Past winners have been Stuart Parkin, a British computer pioneer; Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux operating system; and Shinya Yamanaka, pioneer of ethical stem cells.

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