Depending on the nature of the substances it’s become very difficult to find the separation between chemistry and biology

Quite a few times in the last 20-30 years, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has gone to biology discoveries. What’s going on?

Being a chemist, I am not surprised. The molecular biology field is evolving rapidly, as are the implications on human health and the nature of life itself. The synthetic world of chemistry and the natural world of biology are no longer operating in parallel universes.

Take this year’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Half of it was awarded to Frances H. Arnold for “the directed evolution of enzymes.” The other half was dived jointly between George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter for their work on phage display of peptides and antibodies.

Arnold showed the first directed evolution of enzymes (proteins that catalyse chemical reactions). Directed evolution, as well as natural evolution, relies on the ability of proteins to function over a wider range of environments or carry out a wider range of functions than what might be biologically relevant at a given time and therefore selected. Arnold’s engineered enzymes have been used for more environmentally-friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

Smith developed phage display methodology, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Winter used phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first antibody based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. Since then, phage display has produced antibodies that can neutralize toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and even cure diseases.

This goes to show you how far we have come since Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel set aside the bulk of his fortune in 1889 to create the prestigious prizes. Alfred Nobel spent his career inventing dynamite; chemistry was a close discipline to him. From the state, the Chemistry Prize was intended for scientists who “made discoveries or improvements that have given us knowledge about the structure of various substances and how they are created and changed.”

Depending on the nature of the substances it’s become very difficult to find the separation between Chemistry and Biology, especially when the substances are proteins or DNA-related.

Perhaps we should just call it the Nobel for Chemistry-Biology!