New Function for Plant Enzyme Could Lead to Green Chemistry


Discovery may inspire development of better industrial catalysts.

Fatty acid can be used to synthesize a wide range of organic molecules, so the discovery of the plant enzyme may inspire the development of new "greener" industrial catalysts.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory have discovered a new function in a plant enzyme that could have implications for the design of new chemical catalysts. The enzyme catalyzes, or initiates, one of the cornerstone chemical reactions needed to synthesize a wide array of organic molecules, including those found in lubricants, cosmetics, and those used as raw materials for making plastics.

“This enzyme could inspire a new form of ‘green’ chemistry,” said Brookhaven Lab biochemist John Shanklin, who led the research. “Maybe we can adapt this biomolecule to make useful chemicals in plants, or use it as the basis for designing new bio-inspired catalysts to replace more expensive, toxic catalysts currently in use.”

Shanklin and his team published a paper describing the research in the journal Plant Physiology.

The team made the discovery in the course of their ongoing research into enzymes that desaturate plant oils. These desaturase enzymes strip hydrogen atoms off specific adjacent carbon atoms in a hydrocarbon chain and insert a double bond between those carbon atoms. Shanklin’s group had previously created a triple mutant version of a desaturase enzyme with interesting properties, and they were studying the three mutations separately to see what each one did.

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Image via Brookhaven National Laboratory