Creating an Unconventional Assembly Line

November 07, 2019

Researchers aims to transform simple chemical building blocks into complex chemical compounds faster.

Chemical compounds are integral in our lives. They play a starring role in everything from developing new drugs to adding flavor to a dish. Complex chemical compounds — think penicillin or olive oil — are built from elements and simple chemical building blocks. The building process is expedited by enzymes.

A scientist working at a bench without enzymes cannot begin to compete with this speed, accuracy or efficiency found in nature. Scientists constantly leverage enzymes in their chemical reactions, a process called biocatalysis.

With the support of a new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Professors Claudia Schmidt-Dannert (Biochemistry, Molecular Biology & Biophysics / BioTechnology Institute) and Vincent Noireaux (CSE, Physics) seek to reduce the steps involved in biocatalysis.

Currently scientists rely on genetically-altered E. coli cultures to serve as “enzyme factories.” Engineered to produce a specific enzyme, scientists culture E. coli and then harvest the resulting enzyme. Depending on how many different types of enzymes they need to complete the final reaction, scientists might repeat these steps several times. 

Researchers want to eliminate the need to culture E. coli. “We hope to build an artificial cell system that runs a metabolic pathway which will produce the enzymes of interest. It won’t look like a traditional cell, which is why we call it a cell system. It will only contain the genes that are required to convert a simple building block into a complex molecule,” says Schmidt-Dannert.

The researchers first connected through the Grand Challenges Program, which aims to foster interdisciplinary research teams within the College and beyond. Bringing their unique perspectives, they hope to revolutionize biocatalysis. Schmidt-Dannert imagines a day when her lab can say goodbye to culturing E. coli for the sole purpose of harvesting enzymes. Hopefully, using artificial cell systems, the team will be able to go from a simple chemical to a complex chemical compound with greater efficiency.  – Claire Wilson