May 24, 2016

Technology Academy Finland awards biochemistry innovator

Frances Arnold, professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry, is the first woman to win The Millennium Technology Prize.
Frances Arnold, professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry, is the first woman to win The Millennium Technology Prize.

Biochemical engineer Frances Arnold wins the Finnish 2016 Millennium Technology Prize for directed evolution revolution.

The Finnish organisation Technology Academy Finland (TAF) has declared American Biochemical engineer Frances Arnold the winner of the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize, the prominent award for technological innovations that enhance the quality of life. The prize is worth one million euros.

Arnold receives the prize in recognition of her discoveries that launched the field of ‘directed evolution’, which mimics natural evolution to create new and better proteins in the laboratory. According to TAF, 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.

With directed evolution it is possible to create proteins with useful properties that would not develop without human intervention. Frances Arnold’s method generates random mutations in the DNA – just as it happens in nature. The modified genes produce proteins with new properties, from which the researcher can choose the useful ones, repeating the process until the level of performance needed by industry is achieved.

“We can now use evolution to make things that no human knows how to design,” says Arnold. “Evolution is the most powerful engineering method in the world, and we should make use of it to find new biological solutions to problems.”

Directed evolution is used to improve enzymes that convert cellulose or other plant sugars to biofuels and chemicals. The facilitation of a green chemical industry, based on renewable raw materials and biotechnology, has been one of Arnold’s goals. The method has already resulted in more efficient processes for making numerous medicines, including a treatment for type 2 diabetes.

“Awarding Frances Arnold’s innovation is indeed very timely, as a number of countries, including Finland, are aiming at clean technology and green growth,” says professor Marja Makarow, the Chair of TAF.

The Millennium Technology Prize, presented every other year by the independent Technology Academy Finland, is a Finnish prize awarded in recognition of innovators of technologies that promote sustainable development and a better quality of life.

The award was first conferred in 2004. The previous winners include innovators such as World Wide Web creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of bright blue and white LEDs Shuji Nakamura and ethical stem cell pioneer Shinya Yamanaka.

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