RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It is Nobel Prize week. So far, Nobels have been handed out for physics and medicine, and today is chemistry. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the winners in Stockholm.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking in Swedish)
MARTIN: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is here to tell us about the winners. Presumably, you're not going to do a verbatim translate of that.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Not in Swedish. No, no.
MARTIN: (Laughing) OK. Who won?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So half of the award went to Frances Arnold. She's a researcher at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif. And the other half of the award is shared by George Smith at the University of Missouri in Columbia and Gregory Winter at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
MARTIN: And what did they do that has given them this honor?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So the Nobel Prize committee said that they introduced a revolution in chemistry, based on evolution. And so basically, the idea is they took the principles of Darwin, of evolution, and applied them to the test tube - basically, you know, developing new types of chemicals in enzymes by inserting an element of randomness into the whole process. So it used to be that people would try to develop new chemicals or enzymes by, you know, using logic and trying to design...
GREENFIELDBOYCE: ...The enzyme to do exactly what they wanted it to do. But Frances Arnold called that a, quote, "somewhat arrogant approach." And so she realized the thing to do was to use randomness. And in the early 1990s, she started trying to improve the performance of enzymes by taking a gene for an enzyme, putting a whole bunch of random mutations into it and then putting these into bacteria that would then spew out a whole bunch of different versions of the enzyme. And then you could screen those to pick the best one for whatever purpose you had.
And then the others who won the prize did something similar. George Smith developed a technique called phage display. It uses a virus to infect bacteria and it can be used to evolve new proteins. And including antibodies - that's what Gregory Winter did. He took phage display and applied it to antibodies. And, you know, by doing that, you can create antibodies as all kinds of new medicines to treat diseases.
MARTIN: I mean, I just love that idea of inserting randomness into important scientific discoveries. How did that practically change our world?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, you know, by using evolution to produce new enzymes, you could improve almost any industrial process. I mean, you know, enzymes make chemical reactions go faster. And you could, you know, develop enzymes to do things that people hadn't thought were possible before. You can create more environmentally friendly chemicals. You know, you can produce renewable fuels or better medicines. And in terms of new antibodies, there are medicines based on this. I mean, the first medicine was approved in 2002, and it targets rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease. So, you know, other antibodies are in development that could do things like fight cancer.
MARTIN: We heard yesterday from NPR science editor, Geoff Brumfiel, that the Nobels are actually struggling to stay relevant. I mean, is that something that - a discussion you've heard around this particular prize too?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. There's a question about whether it's keeping up with modern times. I mean, Frances Arnold is only the fifth woman to win this Chemistry Nobel in over a hundred years. The prize can only go to three people, it can't go to anybody who's dead. Some people say that, you know, it's a little bit archaic in this day and age, but I think they're trying to keep up.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce with the news of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Thanks so much, Nell.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.