The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2018
This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Frances H Arnold for “the directed evolution of enzymes”, and jointly to George P Smith and Gregory P Winter for “the phage display of peptides and antibodies”. A major goal in chemistry is to develop new proteins, such as enzymes or antibodies. A protein is typically a string of hundreds or thousands of amino acids linked together that fold up in three-dimensional structures. Because there are 20 kinds of amino acids, the possible number of proteins (i.e. combination of amino acids) one can design is astronomical, and most of them don’t work. Both studies succeeded in developing a method to develop proteins based on a similar principle. Instead of trying to logically design a particular protein based on existing knowledge, they adopted the principle of evolution. Basically, first, they create several new proteins by introducing random mutations to existing proteins. Next, they select the best performing proteins and then introduce a new round of random mutations to create several new proteins. After a few cycles, a new protein that is much more effective than the original one can be obtained. This principle is the same as in the evolutionary or genetic algorithms used in machine learning. Who knows, maybe there are other problems the principle of evolution can be applied to!?!?