Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Yale professors awarded $1 million to study man-made enzymes

From a press release by Yale University:

Yale researchers Alanna Schepartz (left) and Scott J. Miller recently received a prestigious $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation for their work to create artificial enzymes.

The grant supports a three-year, pioneering study that aims to create artificial enzymes using beta-peptide bundles, miniature synthetic proteins discovered in the Schepartz laboratory in 2007. The work has far-reaching implications in the field of synthetic chemistry as well as the emerging areas of biomimetics and synthetic biology.

Biomimetics is a field in which systems from nature are studied in order to invent or create new products.

Yale President Richard C. Levin said, “I am delighted that the W.M. Keck Foundation has lent its support to the work of professors Schepartz and Miller in this breakthrough endeavor. Their ambitious and forward-thinking study embodies the spirit of curiosity that we cherish at Yale.”
The construction of an artificial enzyme has long been considered a “Holy Grail” of modern chemistry. Natural enzymes are known to dramatically accelerate chemical reactions. If this behavior can be mimicked to drive desirable reactions in a laboratory or manufacturing setting, scientists will have unprecedented control over the creation of new and useful materials.

Some researchers believe that artificial enzymes could be targeted to specific cellular functions or applications, potentially working with greater efficiency than their natural counterparts.
Schepartz and Miller are focusing on beta-peptide bundles in part because of their novelty; first assembled at Yale four years ago, these tiny, protein-like structures offer unique advantages for catalyst development. In addition, beta-peptide bundles are relatively predictable in their behavior, stable, and well suited for systematic study in the laboratory.
“We are beginning with fundamental research,” Schepartz said.

Schepartz and Miller hope that a deeper understanding of how beta-peptide bundles orchestrate these steps will open the door for powerful new organo-catalysts tailored to accelerate specific chemical reactions. In the future, potential applications for their research may span many sectors of chemistry and biotechnology, from pharmaceutical manufacturing to the clean synthesis of alternative energy sources.

Alanna Schepartz is professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale. She is an authority on the design and synthesis of novel molecules that mimic, monitor or control cellular interactions. Scott Miller is the chairman of the Chemistry Department and an expert in the development, analysis and application of synthetic catalysts.

The W.M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, the founder of the Superior Oil Co. The foundation is one of the nation’s most prominent philanthropic organizations supporting science, engineering and medical research. By supporting top researchers, laboratories and research centers, the foundation promotes discovery that will save lives, solve complex problems and further understanding of the natural world.

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