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The first synbio Nobel Prize


Frances Arold at the Metabolic Engineering 12 conference, explaining that directed evolution allows exploring directions evolution probably wouldn’t take…  (disclaimer: Professor Arnold works with enzymes, not animals) Photo by K. Vavitsas

I had the chance to attend a presentation from Frances Arnold last June, at the Metabolic Engineering 12 conference in Munich. I was impressed by the quality of here work, at the ease of manipulating enzymes to catalyze novel reaction and effectively create new chemistry. Her pioneering work in directed enzyme evolution has changed the way we utilize enzymes in research and in the industrty, and that led to a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Chemistry (Professor Arnold shares the prize with Professor George Smith and Sir Gregory Winter, who got half the prize for their work in peptides and antibody phage display).


PLOS synbio hosted an interview of Professor Arnold. Our former community editor Daniela Quaglia – little did she know that she was then interviewing a future Noble laureate – recalls:

“During the conversation we had, I remember finding her very professional, yet approachable. She was very kind to dedicate me half an hour of her busy schedule that day!! I am very grateful for this. Professor Arnold is an example of scientific rigor but also passion. By winning the Nobel Prize she has also demonstrated how versatility and multidisciplinarity are key to achieve great things. What a great example to all!”

Read more: Directed evolution in synthetic biology: an interview with Professor Frances Arnold


The title of this post refers to this prize as the first synthetic biology Nobel Prize. But is it true? Does her work fall in the category of synbio? In order to get a more educated opinion, I asked a person who needs to validate the scope and area of research works on a daily basis: synthetic biology editor in Nature Communications Ross Cloney. His verdict was:

“Is directed protein evolution synthetic biology? Yes, since it has a role in the design-build-test cycle and takes our understanding of basic biology and applies it to achieving specific goals. I think it’s useful to consider that synthetic biology isn’t always a set of recognized techniques or a focused discipline (though it is clearly also these things) but often a conceptual way of looking at biology and how we engage with it. That’s part of its strength and potential – to take often quite different approaches and bring them together under this idea that biology can be (re)designed.”


The Nobel Prize, despite the shortfalls and criticisms, is one of the most prestigious Science awards, and draws the spotlight on amazing and influential research contributions. As Daniela notes: “I am thrilled that [Professor Arnold] won the Nobel Prize, both for her, but also for the enzyme engineering community. In fact, maybe this will shake things up and make enzyme engineering less of a niche, and will help expanding the field. Opportunities are incommensurable!“. So congratulations again to Professor Arnold, I am looking forward to more exciting research from her group!


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