Nobel Prize for ‘Directed Evolution’

There are a zillion headlines about this today, and the creationists are certain to take notice. We’ll use the article in Nature, titled ‘Test-tube’ evolution wins Chemistry Nobel Prize.

You can read it online without a subscription, and we know you’re going to click over there, so we’ll just hit the main points. Here are some excerpts, with bold font added by us for emphasis, and this time we’ll leave out the occasional Curmudgeonly interjections:

Ways to speed up and control the evolution of proteins to produce greener technologies and new medicines have won three scientists the 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Chemical engineer Frances Arnold, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, is just the second woman to win the prize in the past 50 years. She was awarded half of the 9-million-Swedish-krona (US$1 million) pot. The remaining half was shared between Gregory Winter at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, and George Smith at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

What did they do? Nature says:

Arnold carried out pioneering work in the 1990s on ‘directed evolution’ of enzymes. She devised a method for inducing mutations in enzyme-producing bacteria and then screening and selecting the bacteria to speed up and direct enzyme evolution. These enzymes, proteins that catalyse chemical reactions, are now used in applications from making biofuels to synthesizing medical drugs.

“Biology has this one process that’s responsible for all this glorious complexity we see in nature,” she told Nature shortly after the prize announcement on 3 October. But although nature operates blindly, scientists know what chemical properties they want to get from an enzyme, and her techniques accelerate natural selection towards those goals. “It’s like breeding a racehorse.”

You know that a certain creationist outfit in Seattle is going to grab that phrase “directed evolution” to claim this is evidence for you-know-what, but let’s keep reading. Nature tells us:

Arnold also faced an uphill battle when she put forward the idea of evolving proteins in the lab, says Dane Wittrup, a protein engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. At the time, researchers thought that they would be able to sit down at a computer and rationally design proteins to carry out specific functions. “It was counter-cultural at the time,” he says. “But now, by and large, directed evolution is how the work is done.”

Nicholas Turner, an organic chemist at the University of Manchester, UK, agrees. “Pretty much every enzyme that is used for commercial-scale application will have been through some form of directed evolution,” he says.

This is our last excerpt:

“This year’s prize in chemistry rewards a revolution based on evolution,” said Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry 2018, during the prize announcement. “Our laureates have applied principles of Darwin in the test tubes, and used this approach to develop new types of chemicals for the greatest benefit of humankind.”

Okay, now lets sit back and wait for the creationists to claim that this proves they were right all along. Yeah, except that a lot of beneficial medicine is being produced this way — not by the cosmic designer. And of course, creationists have no explanation for why diseases exist in the first place — unless they want to trot out Adam & Eve. Anyway, it’ll be fun to watch their reactions.

Copyright © 2018. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “Nobel Prize for ‘Directed Evolution’

  1. I was in London in May and noticed her lecture at Imperial College. Didn’t know anything about her, but the lecture was great. She gave a chemistry award lecture here in Lincoln NE last week. I occurred that this was potential Nobel material but a real shock to see how quickly it happened. Watch her YouTube lectures!

  2. The reaction from the creationists will bear their signature style: the combination of self-contradiction, smoke and mirrors, and changing the subject.

  3. @ TomS: Indeed–but you omitted ‘presecution complex’ from your catalogue of their signature style. No DI rant is complete without a hot steaming dollop of self-pity for all the ‘persecution’ they endure at the hands of cruel Darwinists…

  4. Michael Fugate

    Conspiracy theories – don’t forget them.

  5. Plus a reference to the evils of materialism.
    We regulars here are better at IDiocy than the IDiots from Seattle themselves.

  6. What’s next, a study that shows humans have been directing evolution by selecting who we mate with?

  7. Michael Fugate

    Speaking of Nobel Prize winners – how can you be an important scientist if I haven’t heard of you and you are female – of course:
    https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/oct/03/donna-strickland-nobel-physics-prize-wikipedia-denied

  8. I believe that Strickland is an Associate Professor. I assume that she is due a promotion.

  9. Arnold tells us that “it’s exactly like breeding a racehorse”. Indeed; the process of artificial selection that so impressed Darwin.

    Logically, this work does not present any additional arguments for the validity of evolution science. If, for creationists, the breeding of racehorses doesn’t count, then this work doesn’t count either.

    The argument that it does refute is the often-advanced argument that evolution science is useless in medicine.

  10. But it does not refute the argument that accepting the whole of evolutionary biology is of use in medicine. For example, hw does this relate to the Cambian Explosion?

  11. @TomS, Admittedly, it does not refute the very weak claim that some parts of evolution science have no medical application. But no one ever claims that all aspects of a fundamental science should have practical applications. For example, no one denounces physics because quantum chromodynamics is irrelevant to the design of car engines. But creationists that I have read (sorry, can’t remember details) do indeed claim that there is no need for medical students to learn about evolution, because evolution has no medical relevance. And it is that claim that has now been rebutted.

  12. Creationists will accept what they call “micro-evolution”, and object to “historical science”. We recognize a continuum of science in which “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”.
    The idea that the human body is physically related to the rest of the world of life is obvious, and is critical to understanding medicine. What more is needed?
    I know many people who say that algebra is useless because they haven’t used it since high school.

  13. Techreseller

    TomS. Reportedly our Nobel Prize winner has wanted to remain an Associate. The $1500 dollar raise is not worth the additional admin work that comes with being a full professor. She prefers the lab. Good for her. We need more people like her.

  14. @Techreseller
    Good for her.
    I assume that the higher-ups in the University wuld not understand this.