Berkeley Lab researchers combine synthetic, natural catalysts to create new reactions

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Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have found a way to blend synthetic and biological catalysts, creating the potential for the discovery of new compounds and a more efficient way of producing molecules.

The research, which was led by Berkeley Lab senior faculty scientist John Hartwig, was published June 13 in the journal “Nature” and was the first of its kind. Hartwig’s team focused on combining synthetic catalysts with enzymes — natural catalysts — to increase the scope of possible reactions.

“These catalysts are very important in synthetic chemistry,” said Hanna Key, a UC Berkeley graduate student who co-lead authored the study. “They are used to create fertilizer or pesticides, even materials like plastic grocery bags and plastic bottles.”

Key said the researchers hoped to use natural enzymes to help facilitate reactions not found in nature, with the idea of converting one biological molecule into another biological molecule. These reactions ordinarily use solely synthetic catalysts, making Hartwig’s team a pioneer in using both natural and synthetic catalysts in reactions.

Catalysts are required to form most chemicals and, in labs, these catalysts are created using precious metals that are not as effective as natural enzymes found in living organisms, according to Pawel Dydio, a study co-lead author and campus postdoctoral fellow.

Dydio said the team was interested in marrying the two types of catalysts, which it did by taking the natural enzyme iron inside a muscle protein and replacing it with iridium. Iridium is not usually found in living organisms, and the resulting catalyst produced a different kind of chemical reaction in the protein than under ordinary conditions.

Key noted that the team could follow up on its research in many directions but added that its focus is now on creating artificial enzymes that mimic the properties of natural enzymes, which work faster than their artificial counterparts.

“(Our research) is not only about saving money or time, but creating new things that weren’t before possible, especially from the perspective of an academic lab,” Key said.

Key added that in the future, the team’s research could be used to create greener, more efficient properties for chemical compounds, while also enabling the creation of compounds that are currently not possible to form.

Hartwig said his team’s research would be most useful for “people more interested in making complicated reactions.” He noted, however, that while the research would potentially have applications for pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals, “artificial enzymes” still have a long way to go before they can be practically applied.

“In general, this field of creating artificial enzymes is very new,” Hartwig said. “This is the first paper on the subject and arguably the first in this area. We hope that there are decades and decades worth of research on this topic.”

Contact Simmone Shah at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @simmoneshah.