Chemists’ Nobel-Worthy Idea: Evolve, Don’t Design

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the early 1990s, while creationists started touting “intelligent design theory” under the premise that evolution alone couldn’t produce the complexity of living things, a few chemists were moving in the opposite direction. They realized that designers, no matter how intelligent, were limited in producing new molecules, and thus proposed that harnessing the power of evolution might unleash vast innovation. Wonder which group was headed in the right direction? Hint: Their work led to the 2018 Nobel Prize for chemistry.

A few years earlier, biologist Richard Dawkins published a book called “The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design.” His title was a take-off on the philosophy of English clergyman William Paley, who wrote in 1802 that just as a watch must have been crafted by a watchmaker, so plants and animals must have been crafted by God.

In 1994, I riffed on Dawkins for a piece in Science, called “Co-opting a Blind Watchmaker,” in which Caltech professor Frances Arnold explained how she was guiding the evolution of microorganisms to produce molecules with desired properties. Willem Stemmer of the biotech Affymax in Palo Alto explained how he was mimicking the shuffling of genes that goes on in sex to create a faster version of evolution in a test tube.

Half of this year’s prize went to Arnold for her work in 1993, which eventually led to new catalysts used for manufacturing, drugs and biofuels. The Nobel Committee also acknowledged Stemmer, who died in 2013. (Only living scientists can win a Nobel.) The other half of the prize was shared by George Smith, of the University of Missouri, and Gregory Winter, of MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in the UK. Smith pioneered the use of a virus called a phage to spur the evolution of new molecules, and Winter developed the technique to produce the drug called adalimumab, approved to treat arthritis.

Steve Benner, who started the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, said he and his fellow chemists would like to be intelligent designers, knowing exactly how to create molecules with desired properties. Arnold’s genius, and that of her co-winners, he said, was realizing that humans’ theories are not good enough to rationally change amino acids and proteins to have desired properties, and to instead resort to random variation followed by artificial selection.

Artificial selection is simply the coaxing of evolution in a certain direction, as people have done for millennia to produce crop plants and domestic animals. Why not chemicals? “You are looking for an enzyme that nature never had a reason to make,” Arnold said in my 1994 story. The creative power of evolution comes partly from the vast amount of random variations living things can produce.

The idea of randomness seems anathema to the ordered complexity of the living world, but selection itself is an ordering principle, whether guided by humans or nature. And there’s underlying order, too, in the laws of chemistry – ultimately a result of the laws of physics always at work in the background. As Benner pointed out, random variation plus chemistry plus selection produced us all.

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Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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