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New Enzyme Converts Plant-Derived Lignin to Bioplastics

Michael Crowley (left), Christopher Johnson, and Gregg Beckham are co-authors of a new paper in Nature Communications. Photo by Dennis Schroeder / NREL

An international research team, including scientists from U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has discovered a new family of cytochrome P450 enzymes.

They are  highly versatile enzymes, which can be found in the human body. They are involved in different important metabolic pathways.

For decades, researchers only knew about Families A through M classes of the cytochrome P450s; however, the Family N was finally discovered. This discovery can improve the conversion of lignin into useful materials or products ( nylon, chemicals, plastic etc.).

Cytochrome P450s are incredibly important enzymes that have an infinite number of usages in biotechnology. They are highly flexible and can be engineered for different tasks. Scientists have already worked for decades on engineering the proteins to tweak them.

The discovery happened when Gregg Beckham, a Senior Research Fellow at NREL, asked Christopher Johnson, a molecular biologist in NREL’s National Bioenergy Center, to find an enzyme needed for the conversion of guiaicol, the simplest element of lignin, to another organic compound. This reaction can be used in the production of several types of bioplastics.

Johnson found the way to conduct the conversion in a single step. He discovered the cytochrome P450s that could do that. However, in order to make the enzyme work more efficiently, they had to understand how it works. Therefore, they tried to analyze the structure, and it led to the discovery of the Family N.

The study of the Family N didn’t stop, and scientists found another characteristic of that class.  They realized that it t can remove a methyl group from different substances. This is critical for the microbial conversion of lignin. Additionally, the enzyme can be engineered to be a specialist for a specific molecule.

According to Beckham, now Family N cytochrome P450 is the most versatile, engineerable and evolvable class of enzymes ready to push biotechnology forward and make the enzyme better.

[via EurekAlert]

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