UC Berkeley researchers discover new applications for enzymes

Ting Xu/Courtesy

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Scientists at UC Berkeley have created a protein mat that can absorb chemical pollution, providing a breakthrough in scientific research that could potentially be applied to war zones and contaminated sites.

The applications of this groundbreaking discovery include degrading pollutants such as pesticides and easily creating biocatalysts, according to Aaron Hall, a campus materials science and engineering doctoral candidate who assisted with research for the project.

Hall said the team utilized unique knowledge about polymers, including their surface “patchiness,” to discover that certain polymers can camouflage to work with proteins.

According to Hall, the findings were made with evidence collected from computer simulations and physical experiments.  Ting Xu, campus professor of chemistry and of materials science and engineering, who conducted research for the study, said researchers have been accumulating data for the project since 2011.

Baofu Qiao, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University and research collaborator for the project, designed the computer simulations used in the study.

“From the computer simulations, we could reproduce the experimental conditions very well … (and) how the molecules and proteins are interacting with each other,” Qiao said.

Hall said he worked on the polymer experimentation aspect of the project, including the “synthesis side of things,” using nuclear magnetic resonance, or NMR, experimentation to prove that the results were reproducible. The scientists found that the results affirmed their original hypothesis.

Hall added that this research will expand the possible uses for enzymes both in research and in real-world applications, as they can now be used outside their original environments.

“We (now) know enzymes can be incorporated into plastic. You don’t want the pesticides from fruits to get into the water. Imagine that you can use this cloth and make it into a filter so that the pollutants get degraded,” Xu said.

The enzymes can now facilitate the reactions themselves, Xu added, and scientists can stabilize them in their desired conditions.

The ability to stabilize enzymes outside of a cell while retaining their activities allows chemistry to be done more efficiently without the complexity that would come with more synthetic methods, according to Hall.

Campus postdoctoral researcher Tao Jiang added that the research is even more applicable because of the availability and relative inexpensiveness of the required polymers, as well as the relatively low skill level required to make them.

“Now we have a portable lab. Whenever you want, you can stabilize (enzymes) in any environment and get any reactions,” Xu said. “It is a … highly interdisciplinary search, and it takes a long time, but that’s often where high-impact research happens.”

Contact Sri Medicherla at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @sri_medicherla.