Three researchers who "harnessed the power of evolution" to produce enzymes and antibodies that have led to a best-selling drug and biofuels won the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday.
Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology was awarded half of the more than $1m prize, while the other half was shared by George Smith of the University of Missouri and Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which chose the winners, said Arnold, 62, conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, whose uses include "more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances such as pharmaceuticals and the production of renewable fuels."
Arnold was only the fifth woman to win a chemistry Nobel since the prizes began in 1901.
Smith, 77, developed a method to evolve new proteins and Winter, 67, used the method to evolve antibodies, which are disease-fighting proteins in the blood.
The first pharmaceutical based on Winter's work was approved for use in 2002 and is employed to treat rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases, the academy said. The chemical name of the drug is adalimumab, which has several trade names including Humira, one of the top-selling drugs in the world.
The Swedish academy said the winners "harnessed the power of evolution," meaning they made evolution of proteins happen in their labs.
By introducing genetic mutations, they created wide varieties of the proteins, and then selected for those that worked best for the tasks they wanted to achieve. This was a much faster version of the process that drives the evolution of organisms in the natural world.
Proteins designed by Arnold "do these really off-the-wall things in record time," said Matt Hartings, an associate chemistry professor at American University. "Her work is incredible."
He said Arnold's development of an enzyme that can promote chemical reactions involving silicon was also a startling accomplishment, "completely bonkers."
Dr Wayne Marasco of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston said the lab technique developed by Smith and Winter was "revolutionary... and it's used today, every day."
Smith, meanwhile, credited others for the work that led to his breakthrough.
"Very few research breakthroughs are novel. Virtually all of them build on what went on before. It's happenstance. That was certainly the case with my work," he told The Associated Press.
He said he learned of the prize in a pre-dawn phone call from Stockholm.
"It's a standard joke that someone with a Swedish accent calls and says 'You won!' But there was so much static on the line, I knew it wasn't any of my friends," he said.
Arnold, reached by telephone at an airport in Dallas, said she expects to see an increasing number of female Nobel chemistry laureates in the coming years.
"I predict we will see many more Nobel chemistry prizes for women," said Arnold.
She learned she had won when she was "unceremoniously woken up" at 04:00. in her hotel room in Dallas.
"The phone rang and I was certain it was one of my kids or some emergency, but it wasn't. First I was stunned, like somebody hit me over the head with something, and then I started to wake up," she said.
Winter also ran into phone problems, compounded by what he said was brain-fuzz from a feast at Trinity College Cambridge the night before.
"This operator had a Swedish accent," he told a news conference. "It reminded me of my bank ringing up and telling me I had some dodgy transaction on my account."
There will be another party shortly in Cambridge. Winter said lab colleagues told him later in the day that more than $3 600 worth of Champagne had been ordered before asking "can we have your credit card please?"
American Chemical Society President Peter Dorhout praised the Nobel winners, saying they "used chemistry to accelerate the evolution of natural biological molecules that act as the critical machinery for living organisms.
"The breakthroughs from these researchers enable that to occur thousands of times faster than nature to improve medicines, fuels and other products," he said.
Winter said an encounter with a cancer patient early in his career made him realise the importance of his work.
The woman was receiving his then-experimental antibody treatment. Even though Winter didn't know whether it would work, the patient was grateful for whatever extra time the treatment would give her to spend with her husband.
Winter says he realized afterward there was a "moral imperative" to ensure "what was produced could be used for public benefit."
Experts said the winners' discoveries also had an ecological benefit.
"If you can harness enzymes for your own purposes, this is often more environmentally friendly than using heavy metals or toxic substances to make your chemicals," said Johan Aqvist, a member of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.
In other Nobel prizes this year, the medicine prize went on Monday to James Allison of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and Tasuku Honjo of Kyoto University, who learned how to release the brakes that cancer can put on immune systems, helping doctors fight many advanced-stage cancer tumors.