UCT researcher’s biochemistry breakthrough

Date:6 March 2020 Author: Leila Stein Tags:,

The University of Cape Town’s Science Department have announced an innovative breakthrough in the structure of a group of enzymes, known as nitrilases.

According to UCT, three members from the department used a technique called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to investigate the structure of the enzymes.

These enzymes have enormous biotechnological potential, including being used to manufacturing better medicines and to clean up pollution.

“Enzymes produce all the chemicals in plants and animals that allow them to survive. They are the chemical factories of the cell. We found it really exciting to be able to open up the mechanism of this biological machine and understand it,” said Jeremey Woodward, the principal investigator in UCT’s Structural Biology Research Unit.

Using nitrilases to make pharmaceuticals could revolutionise the way drug resistance is approached in Africa and other developing countries.

“The synthesis of chemicals using these enzymes could improve the drug discovery platform in Africa,” said Andani Mulelu, another member of the team and research scientist at the H3D Drug Discovery and Development Centre at UCT.

“We’re not just following nature. We are being inspired by it and altering what it can do. We are able to produce brand new enzymes.”

The technique of cryo-EM essentially determines the structure of large biological molecules. By adopting the technique, Woodward, Mulelu and Angela Kirykowicz were able to produce the first high-resolution visualisation of a cryo-EM protein structure in Africa.

“By masking out a single helical turn [of the nitrilase] and treating this as a single particle, we were able to improve the resolution substantially,” the scientists explained in their paper published in Nature Research’s Communications Biology.

“Once we had the reconstruction, we were able to see what happened with the individual atoms and make a prediction about what would happen when we change those atoms.”

“It’s great to know that we are working on the cutting-edge and making an important contribution to science,” said Woodward.

Image: UCT

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