University of Missouri professor George Smith says he and his science friends like to play pranks. A standard prank among them is to call each other in the middle of the night – with a Swedish accent – and say they’ve won a Nobel prize. During a press conference to recognize Smith as the latest winner, he says he knew Wednesday’s phone call was the real deal.
“I kind of knew it wasn’t any of my friends because the connection was so terrible. Sweden is a really advanced country, but I think that they need some work on their phones,” he says.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded Smith and two other researchers this year’s Nobel Prize for chemistry by “harnessing the power of evolution”. Smith becomes the first University of Missouri professor ever to win the honor.
In 1993, Frances Arnold of Caltech in Pasadena conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze chemical reactions. She has refined the methods now routinely used to create new catalysts. The uses of Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally-friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels.
In 1985, Smith developed a method to evolve new proteins. He says he worked on the prize-winning technique for not quite 10 years.
Gregory Winter of the MRC molecular biology lab in Cambridge, England used Smith’s phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the goal of producing new pharmaceutical drugs. It is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. The technique can also lead to the discovery of antibodies that can neutralize toxins, combat metastasized cancers and fend off autoimmune diseases.
Smith, who is now retired, was a professor in the Division of Biological Sciences for about 40 years.
During Wednesday’s announcement, Smith displayed humor, modesty and generosity by thanking the university and his co-winners for “winning him the Nobel prize”.
“Think of science as a web of influence and so on and one particular person is in the middle,” he says. “That particular person can’t take full credit for it. You just have to realize that person is a stand in, is a representative of a whole field of knowledge.”
He says science doesn’t work by “picking winners”, deciding which person will make a big breakthrough and a lot of money.
“That’s not how science works,” he says. “Science is a big community of people that are engaged in their work and in their teaching. Someone like me can flourish at Mizzou and I think that’s something Mizzou should be proud of – of nurturing that kind of intellectual community.”
He says he hopes the honor will lead to better things for Mizzou.
“Let’s hope that the hard times that we have lived through for the last couple of years will be a little less hard times,” he says.
Smith has also received $250,000 as part of his prize. He says his family plans to donate the money in a way that would indirectly honor the award.
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