In This Section
Frances Arnold, PhD

Frances Arnold, PhD

California Institute of Technology
Pasadena, California

Class of 2021

Scientific Areas of Expertise: Biocatalysis; Biotechnology; Protein Engineering

For her Nobel Prize-winning contributions to pioneering directed evolution to generate enzymes that display improved and novel functions, and for highlighting how to harness such technologies to produce pharmaceutical compounds, chemicals, and renewable fuels more sustainably.

A celebrated trailblazer, Dr. Arnold’s Nobel Prize-winning research efforts led to the establishment of the concept of directed evolution of enzymes to generate catalysts that display improved and/or novel functions. Through her revolutionizing use of biochemical engineering and error-prone polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, Dr. Arnold expertly showcased the potential of accumulating beneficial mutations over random mutagenesis and screening to develop enzymes to take on new, useful functions. Her seminal publication in 1993 describing evolution of a subtilisin E protease to function in a harsh, unnatural environment demonstrated a reliable, new approach to engineering complex protein functions.

With this evolutionary engineering strategy, over several decades her group constructed enzymes to accept new substrates, tolerate extreme temperatures, utilize new cofactors,  alter their enantioselectivities and to change their product selectivities. Interestingly, directed evolution also demonstrated that beneficial mutations often occured far from the active site of an enzyme, including on the protein’s surface, which at the time was thought to be a functionally neutral location. Over the past decade, Dr. Arnold and her team have gone beyond nature’s chemical repertoire by constructing entire families of enzymes that catalyze new-to-nature reactions and even form bonds not found in biology. Such studies have led her to also investigate the relationship of protein structure and function outside of the patterns guided by natural selection.

Dr. Arnold’s methods have been used by researchers worldwide to engineer new and useful catalysts for medicine, chemistry, materials science and more.  Such enzymes have been critical in the development of green chemistry, greatly reducing waste in chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Directed evolution has also been used to create improved strains of viruses for gene delivery and therapeutic antibodies for the treatment of cancer. In recognition of her enormous scientific contributions, Dr. Arnold was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2018 for revealing how to harness bioengineering technologies to generate pharmaceutical compounds, chemicals, and renewable fuels.

Selected Awards and Honors

2020 Foreign Member, Royal Society, London, United Kingdom
2019 Bower Award in Science, Franklin Institute
2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm, Sweden
2018 Elected Member, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
2018 Elected International Fellow, Royal Academy of Engineering, London, United Kingdom
2016 Millennium Technology Prize, Technology Academy, Helsinki, Finland
2014 Elected Member, National Inventors Hall of Fame, Alexandria, Virginia
2014 Golden Plate Award, American Academy of Achievement, Washington, DC
2011 Charles Stark Draper Prize, U.S. National Academy of Engineering, Washington, DC
2011 National Medal of Technology and Innovation, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Washington, DC
2011 Elected Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, Massachusetts
2010 Elected Fellow, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, DC
2009 Elected Fellow, American Academy of Microbiology, American Society for Microbiology, Washington, DC
2008 Elected Member, National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC
2007 Excellence in Science Award, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Rockville, Maryland
2004 Elected Member, National Academy of Medicine
2001 Elected Fellow, American Institute for Medical and Biological Engineering, Washington, DC
2000 Elected Member, National Academy of Engineering, Washington, DC