Stranger Than Nature; Evolving New Proteins

3-D structure of the evolved enzyme (an RNA ligase), using 10 overlaid snapshots. In the top region, the overlays show the range of bending and folding flexibility in the amino acid chain that forms the molecule. The two gray balls are zinc ions. (University of Minnesota)

3-D structure of the evolved enzyme (an RNA ligase), using 10 overlaid snapshots. In the top region, the overlays show the range of bending and folding flexibility in the amino acid chain that forms the molecule. The two gray balls are zinc ions. (University of Minnesota)

A few days ago, I wrote about a study showing that it’s a-okay to give flu shots to children with egg allergies, which was actually up for debate since vaccines are typically produced in chicken eggs. I also mentioned that there are companies out there trying to create new ways to make vaccines using insect cells. But using nature to our advantage doesn’t stop there. Energy companies, for example, are looking for the best microorganisms to use in converting plant matter into biofuel. Of course, the options best suited for these sorts of tasks might not actually exist. So what to do then?

The answer is to make the fundamental building blocks for these processes on our own. Biochemical companies around the globe create artificial enzymes—the drivers of life’s basic processes—all the time. And now, at the University of Minnesota, the very first artificial enzyme has been created that harkens back to nature’s primordial designer.

Evolution.

Researchers reported recently the creation of a weird, artificial enzyme built to connect two RNA molecules through the use of natural selection. Rather than creating computer models of the combination of ammino acids most likely to carry out a desired function, the team took thousands of different structures, tested to see which ones worked best, and then used those select few to mutate and create the next generation of candidates.

The result was a very foreign biochemical structure that does its job but looks nothing like its natural counterparts. Natural enzymes, like all proteins, are made from alpha helices and beta strands. But this one lacks those structures, instead forming around two metal ions and being a bit flimsy rather than rigid.

Connecting two bits of RNA isn’t exactly exciting or groundbreaking news. But it’s not the enzyme that’s important – it’s the process. Using natural selection on artificial enzymes opens the door to create all kinds of new, weird biochemical structures to do our bidding.

And by bypassing the natural “rules” we see all around us, the sky is the limit for what can be created.

The paper, “Structure and dynamics of a primordial catalytic fold generated by in vitro evolution,” was published in Nature Chemical Biology by the University of Minnesota’s Burckhard Seelig, Gianluigi Veglia, and Fa-An Chao.

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About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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