Army-funded research wins 2018 Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics

October 04, 2018

By ARL Public Affairs

ADELPHI, MD. (Oct. 4, 2018) - Professor Frances Arnold won a 2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for research initially funded by the U.S. Army in new enzyme production that led to the commercial, cost-effective synthesis of biofuels tested on the U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters in 2013, and are now approved by the aviation standards body for use in commercial aviation.

Arnold is only the fifth woman to win the prize in its 117-year history.

Gérard Mourou, a French scientist and pioneer in the field of electrical engineering and lasers, won a 2018 Nobel Prize in Physics for Army-funded research in fundamental physics that led to new developments high-intensity, ultrashort laser pulses which led to a number of commercial advancements from masonry, i.e., drilling tiny holes, to medicine's Lasik eye surgery.

With a modest single investigator grant from the U.S. Army Research Laboratory's Army Research Office in the 1990s, Arnold demonstrated the ability to modify an enzyme that provided robust native activity but at higher temperatures. Through a process of protein sequence alteration and selection, directed evolution stretches the boundaries of enzyme activity and function beyond what nature provides.

During this grant period, Arnold also developed a computational algorithm called SCHEMA which provides a means of improving molecular evolution searches toward targeted protein sequence alterations. Through SCHEMA, she demonstrated that this algorithm can be used to design variations of a model protein that confers functional diversity (e.g. enhanced activity, enhanced thermal stability, altered substrate specificity).

In 2003, the Army began funding Arnold through the Army's Institute for Collaborative Biotechnologies (AICB) in Santa Barbara. There, Arnold has utilized SCHEMA to design novel activities for a broad host of enzymes including activity and stability improvements in enzymes capable of degrading cellulosic biomass toward renewable fuel synthesis and developed new machine learning tools to enhance the selection of novel engineered enzymes.

Most notably, as a transition of Army basic research funding, Arnold co-founded a start-up company (Gevo) in 2005 that received its initial funding through the AICB applied research program. Gevo's business goal was to scale-up processing systems that utilize SCHEMA-designed enzymes incorporated into microorganisms for the cost-effective synthesis of biofuels. From these beginnings, Gevo developed into a business that is the world's only commercial producer of renewable isobutanol and in 2013, the US Army successfully flew the Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter on a 50/50 blend of Gevo's ATJ-8 (Alcohol-to-Jet).

"This recognition validates the way ARO pursues basic research," said ARL's Dr. Robert J. Kokoska, program manager in microbiology.

"Twenty years ago, an ARO program manager recognized a potentially unique and exciting approach that could change the way biology can be used to expand the possibilities and range of biochemical synthesis. As Prof. Arnold successfully pursued her vision in large part through this modest initial investment and then through the AICB, the Army can take great pride in knowing that it helped nurture this ground-breaking research which has provided valuable tools for enhancing the creativity of biologists and engineers within the Army research enterprise and the research community at-large. The exciting Army-impactful industrial biofuel transition further validates ARO's basic research investments," Kokoska said.

Arnold is the Linus Pauling professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology.

The Nobel Prize in Physics winner, Mourou, was initially funded while he was at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. There, he created ultrashort, high-intensity laser pulses, called chirped pulse amplification, that were used to develop a positron source for positron spectroscopy. According ARO program manager Dr. Richard Hammond, this research will lead to new kinds of directed energy sources for the Army. Mourou continues his research at the Ecole Polytechnique, public institution of higher education and research in Palaiseau, a suburb southwest of Paris.

"It is good the world recognizes the value of the research funded by ARO," Hammond said.

"This research opened the door to an entirely new kind of physics, both in spectroscopy to and high intensity physics interaction leading to directed energy include X-rays, neutron beams and beta rays. This work could lead to developments in new detection mechanisms of future failure of rotors in helicopters, finding voids in materials for electronic and photonic devises, and in radiation therapy," Hammond explained.

Arnold shares the prize in chemistry with George Smith, who developed a method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage - a virus that infects bacteria - can be used to evolve new proteins.

Mourou shares the prize in physics with Dr. Donna Strickland, of Canada, who is only the third woman to win the prize in physics.


The U.S. Army Research Laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.

 

Last Update / Reviewed: October 4, 2018