U.S. Biochemist Is The First Woman To Win Millennium Technology Prize – Wins $1.1 Million For ‘Directed Evolution’

Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer and bio-engineer, is the first woman to win the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize for developing “directed evolution,” a method used to produce enzymes from renewable resources, according to the Daily News.

Dr. Arnold won the prize on Tuesday and said she was “inspired by nature” in her acceptance speech. The natural world is “the very best inventor and engineer of all time” she said in Helsinki on Tuesday.

The 59-year-old professor performs her research at the California Institute of Technology and first looked to evolution for inspiration to create a way of engineering proteins for human use over two decades ago.

“The biological world is the most spectacular example of crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing, problem-solving – nature’s been doing that for several billion years. We humans with our technologies are way behind,” she said of her directed evolution.

Directed evolution is a method of creating specific traits in enzymes. Her method creates mutations in the DNA of proteins and is already being used worldwide to create valuable enzymes. These enzymes have revolutionized medicine production, changed the way we look at industrial chemicals, have been used to make jet fuel from sugars and now have made Dr. Arnolds the first woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize.

One example of how Dr. Arnold’s “directed evolution” is being used everyday is looking at the diabetes drug Januvia. Dr. Arnold’s work produces the enzyme needed to create the drug that would otherwise need to undergo a chemical process using heavy metals, according to Phys.Org.

“They replaced a chemical process with an enzymatic process, thereby completely eliminating toxic metals that were needed…and getting solvent waste reduction of 60%,” Arnold told the BBC.

Marja Makarow, the chair of the Technology Academy Finland (TAF), announced Francis Arnold as the first woman to win the award and said her work in directed evolution is what the world needs right now.

“Awarding Frances Arnold’s innovation is indeed very timely, as a number of countries, including Finland, are aiming at clean technology and green growth,” she said.

Not only is Dr. Arnold the first woman to win the Millennium Technology Prize, she is also the first woman to be elected for all three branches of the National Academies: The National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. TAF described Dr. Arnold as a pioneer in a “previously male dominated field,” and hopes that her winning this prize and achieving such great work will encourage other women to get excited about science.

“I certainly hope that women can see themselves in my position someday, I hope that my getting this prize will highlight the fact that yes, women can do this, they can do it well and that they can make contributions to the world and be recognized for it,” Dr. Arnold said in a statement.

Her prize-winning work can be used to produce chemicals and fuels from renewable sources for a greener future, something which is close to Dr. Arnold’s heart. Dr. Arnold is the co-founder of a company called Gevo which focuses on green chemistry.

“My entire career I have been concerned about the damage we are doing to the planet and each other…Science and technology can play a major role in mitigating our negative influences on the environment. Changing behavior is even more important. However, I feel that change is easier when there are good, economically viable alternatives to harmful habits,” she said.

Jarl-Thure Eriksson, committee chairman for the Millennium Technology Prize, said that Frances Arnold was the clear choice and beat 79 candidates nominated for the prize.

“From the start of her career she has been a pioneer in a previously male-dominated field,” Eriksson said.

Dr. Arnold was awarded the prize by Finnish President Sauli Niinisto at the University of Helsinki. The prize has been awarded every two years since 2004 by the Technological Academy of Finland, and this year is the first time a woman has won the award worth a whopping $1.1 million. Dr. Arnold is the fourth U.S. Citizen to win the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize.

The Millennium Technology Prize aims to be a technology equivalent of the Nobel Prizes for the sciences. The Noble Prize is another male dominated award with 825 male winners and just 47 female winners since 1901, according to the Telegraph.

[Photo by Heikki Saukkomaa/AP]