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Cal alum (PhD ‘85) Frances H. Arnold wins the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The Chemical Engineering PhD (‘85) wins half of the 2018 Nobel Prize “for the directed evolution of enzymes”.

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The 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry is the latest (and most prestigious) award earned by Cal alum Frances H. Arnold.
Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The list just keeps on growing. Francis Hamilton Arnold becomes the 106th Nobel Laureate affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley earlier today when she was announced along side George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter as the winners of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She is the 2nd Nobel Laureate announced this week, with Literature and Economic to be announced, to be affiliated with Cal after James P. Allison earned a share of the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine for the work that was mostly done while he was a professor in Berkeley.

Arnold, who received her Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering in 1985, is awarded half of this year’s prize, given to works that uses the power of evolution to create new pharmaceutical and cancer treatments. Specifically, Arnold is lauded for her work on “the direct evolution of enzymes”. She becomes the 34th Nobel Laureate across all fields to be a Cal alum. At Berkeley, Arnold worked in the lab of Harvey Blanch and her thesis was on “Engineering Scale Up of Affinity Chromatography”, a new technique at the time to precisely separate proteins. She had initially came to Berkeley to work on Biofuel, but destiny (or Reagan’s energy policy that killed the development of biofuel developments in the 80’s) changed her path. After graduation, Arnold stayed in Berkeley to work as a postdoc for 18 months before getting a faculty position at CalTech.

“Frances’s work has added entirely new dimensions to protein chemistry and biotechnology,” said Douglas Clark, dean of the College of Chemistry at Berkeley and a friend of Arnold’s. “Frances remains at the forefront of this expanding technology and is a shining example of how exciting innovations can emerge from research at the intersection of different fields.”

After obtaining her undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering from Princeton in 1979, Arnold worked briefly in Golden, Colorado, at the Solar Energy Research Institute – now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory – before enrolling in Berkeley’s chemical engineering department to work with Blanch on biofuels. Her background in mechanical engineering meant she had to take all the undergraduate courses in chemical engineering before she could embark on her graduate program. She completed the entire curriculum in 12 months.

“Every professor in my department saw Frances as an extraordinary student because she was gifted in mathematical analysis, in expressing creative ideas and in her encyclopedic knowledge of molecular biology,” said Jeffrey Reimer, now chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

Of even more historical significance is that Arnold is merely the 5th women to be a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. This comes on the heel of Donna Strickland becoming merely the 3rd women to be a Nobel Laureate in Physics yesterday. Of course, Madam Marie Curie is listed on both lists since she has two Nobel Prizes with one in Chemistry and one in Physics. Marie Curie is one of only two people to have earned two Nobel Prizes; the only other Nobel laureate with two Nobel Prizes (Chemistry and Peace) is Linus Pauling (who was affiliated with Cal by being a Visiting Lecture in Physics and Chemistry from 1929-1934). Coincidentally, Arnold is currently the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at CalTech.

Arnold is credited for her pioneering work in Directed Evolution (DE), which is essentially a laboratory accelerated version of natural selection, how evolution optimizes biological functions. This type of protein engineering is the basis of various modern development of practical gene therapy treatments.

You can hear Frances Arnold quickly describes her work.

Essentially, Arnold’s work is harnessing the power of evolution: mainly the natural selection process, to engineer proteins to solve human problems. This process has lead to the development of a lot of current bioengineering work, both in academia and in the private pharmaceutical world. Directed evolution is achieved by introducing mutations, but allowing nature to do the hard work of the selection process to pick out the most beneficial mutations; the end results are desired changes to enzymes, catalysis of biochemical reactions, that can then lead to different biochemical developments. I’m sure our resident CGB Bioengineer Leland can provide more information on how this works.

The Nobel Prize is just the latest of a long list of honors awarded to Arnold in recent years. She won the Draper Prize, AKA Nobel Prize for Engineering, back in 2013 as well as the National Medal of Technology and Innovation that year. She also earned the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize. Hear more about her work in a past video associated with taht award below.

Congratulations to Dr. Frances H. Arnold on this prestigious prize. She is the latest alum to make the rest of us proud of being in the Cal Family.