The molecular dance of life

15 March 2018

Proteins in motion.

Figuring out how enzymes dramatically speed up chemical reactions in cells is a step closer, after work by researchers at Waikato and Bristol Universities.

Waikato’s Professor Vic Arcus and Dr Erica Prentice have been the experimental half of a collaboration with colleagues doing computational analysis in Bristol. The New Zealand work has been funded by a Marsden grant.

A leading physicist once said that, in principle, biology can be explained by understanding the ‘wiggling and jiggling’ of atoms, and the researchers have been examining how that movement changes during biological catalysis - the process of speeding up crucial chemical reactions inside and outside cells.

For the first time, the research links the enzyme’s dance or motion (in atomic detail) directly to the optimal temperature for the reaction. It could eventually lead to designing better biocatalysts for use in industrial processes, such as the production of drugs. It could also help to develop more environmentally friendly biocatalysts, an area that is seen as becoming of increasing global importance.

The researchers also say the work helps to explain how organisms can evolve to live at different temperatures. The subject is at the heart of what Professor Arcus says is a tremendous debate. “We all like working on one of life’s great mysteries, and this is definitely one of them.”

The research was part of Dr Prentice’s PhD, during which she spent time at Bristol University.  She describes her work as examining molecular motions, how they function and how they contribute to catalysis. She is now using the research as the basis for the next step - trying to actually engineer an enzyme.