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Research Projects

Biodegradation research

The Wackett laboratory investigates bacterial biodegradative metabolism. Most recently, the lab is investigating the biodegradation of fertilizer and other agricultural chemical amendments to soils, in an effort to decrease chemical inputs and water contamination.  In another example, enzymes of herbicide biodegradation, see for example the UM-BBD atrazine pathway, were elucidated by our group. Bacteria initiate metabolism of atrazine via the enzyme atrazine chlorohydrolase for which we first reported the structure (Seffernick, et al, 2010). The lab has defined the novel cyanuric acid hydrolase protein family (Seffernick, et al, 2016) and delineated X-ray structures for this class; an example is shown at right.


Studies on biodegradation provide opportunities for bioremediation of chemical contaminants in water. Personal care products (PCPs) are notoriously hard to bioremediate and are increasingly found in waters due to their widespread uses in society. We have demonstrated methods for predicting and enzymatically degrading certain of these compounds. In another case, cyanuric acid hydrolase is being used to remove cyanuric acid in food and water applications. The company Minnepura Technologies was founded to further develop some of the fundamental research for applying the knowledge in real-world remediation applications.

Biosynthesis: Basic and applied research

Microorganisms are being used in biotechnology to produce products ranging from antibiotics to specialty chemicals. Our laboratory investigates the fundamental mechanistic and structural issues underlying biological production of beta-lactone natural products and hydrocarbons. Beta-lactones are an emerging class of anti-cancer, anti-microbial, and anti-obesity products and our fundamental research is opening new opportunities to produce and test these compounds (Christenson, et al, 2017). The lab has discovered that one class of hydrocarbons is biosynthesized in a large multi-enzyme complex with a molecular weight of ~2 million, approaching the size of the ribosome. Structural and mechanistic studies are ongoing.

Enzyme-based sensors

We had previously worked with Bioo Scientific to help develop the MaxSignal Melamine kit for detection melamine in milk and other food products. This research has been extended to detect other compounds such nitrate in water systems.

Novel enzymes

The laboratory continues to study novel microbial enzymes that nature has evolved to handle millions of natural product and anthropogenic chemicals. This has led to the discovery of numerous novel enzymes and metabolic pathways.

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