Augmenting life

This year’s science Nobels compel us to relook at evolution, and also at gender parity The Nobel Prize for Chemistry this year is a tribute to the power of evolution. The laureates harnessed evolution and used it in the laboratory with amazing results. Frances H. Arnold, an American who was given one-half of the prize, used ‘directed evolution’ to synthesise variants of naturally occurring enzymes that could be used to manufacture biofuels and pharmaceuticals. The other half went to George P. Smith, also of the U.S., and Sir Gregory P. Winter, from the U.K., who evolved antibodies to combat autoimmune diseases and even metastatic cancer through a process called phage display. The prizes reaffirm the importance of the concept of evolution in our understanding of life as among the most profound of forces we are exposed to. The Physiology and Medicine prize has gone to the American James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo, from Japan, for showing how different strategies can inhibit the metaphorical ‘brakes’ acting on the immune system and thereby unleash the system’s power on cancer cells to curb their proliferation. These immunologists have enhanced the power of the body’s immune system to go beyond its natural capacity. Arthur Ashkin, from the U.S., has been awarded one-half of the Physics prize, for enabling us to individually hold, study and manipulate tiny bacteria and viruses using ‘optical tweezers’. In many laboratories, optical tweezers are used to study and manipulate subcellular structures such as DNA and little molecular motors. Optical holography, wherein thousands of such optical tweezers can operate together on, say, blood, to separate damaged blood cells from healthy ones could be a treatment process for malaria. The parallel is clearly in how this work has, individually, enabled us to reach out beyond what is permitted by our sensory and physiological capabilities. Gérard Mourou, from France, and Donna Strickland, from Canada, who share the other half of the Physics prize, have been honoured for their methods to generate ultra-short pulses of laser light. The work, published in 1985, went into Ms. Strickland’s PhD thesis and soon revolutionised the field. Among its uses are in Lasik surgery in ophthalmology, and in making surgical stents. More recently, attosecond lasers have even made it possible to observe individual electrons. In sum, the prize-winners have drawn upon the fundamental forces in science and reached out beyond human physical limitations. However, the world of science can do with some introspection. For, two of the six laureates – Donna Strickland and Frances Arnold – are women. They are only the third and fifth women Nobel laureates in Physics and Chemistry, respectively, since the inception of the Nobel prizes. Along with the celebrations, this statistic gives reason for the community of scientists to introspect over what makes an enabling environment for women to practise science in.

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