University researcher creates first artificial enzyme

The enzyme can be used to research the origin of life.

by Branden Largent

A University of Minnesota discovery could lead to industrial innovations and a deeper understanding of how life developed.

University assistant professor Burckhard Seelig and other collaborators spent years determining the structure of the first artificial enzyme through test tube evolution.

“Our artificial enzyme was basically just born in the test tube,” Seelig said, meaning the enzyme is similar to ones that originated billions of years ago. It’s primitive and doesn’t look anything like modern enzymes found in nature.

Enzymes are proteins that break down food in the human body, break down dirt in soaps and help yeast make bread.

Seelig originally created the enzyme as a post-doctoral candidate at Harvard University, but he wasn’t able to see what the structure looked like until now, with the help of College of Biological Sciences professor Gianluigi Veglia and doctoral candidate Frank Chao.

Claudia Schmidt-Dannert, a University Distinguished McKnight Professor,
said the discovery is “a major step forward.”

“His research could lead to new proteins, new enzymes and new functions,” Schmidt-Dannert said.

Seeing what the enzyme looks like could be useful in creating everything from biofuels to prescription drugs, Seelig said, in a more efficient and environmentally friendly way.

This is the first time anyone has evolved enzymes in a lab setting, he said.

Other researchers use computers to design what they think the enzyme would look like, but this poses a problem, Seelig said, because they don’t know enough up front about how it’s supposed to look so it’s functional in the end.

“Our approach is the opposite,” he said, “because we say ‘Hey, let’s assume we don’t know anything of how this thing will look like. Can we still make it?’”

Seelig said enzymes are the “engines of any life” and that the artificial enzymes can be used to research the origin of life on Earth — the primary reason why NASA partially funded the research, he said.

“We’re going to learn how life has developed, how enzymes have evolved in terms of specific functions in the organism,” said Veglia, who co-advised the project.

Seelig also wrote a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health to use its enzyme-creating method to synthesize drugs in a similar, cheaper and environmentally friendly way.

“Enzymes can be very clean machines to synthesize drug molecules,” Seelig said.

Sometimes chemists who are synthesizing prescription drugs cannot find the enzymes they need in nature, so Seelig said the researchers are planning to create “designer enzymes” for them using their test tube evolution method.

Eventually, Seelig said the team wants to simplify the process of creating enzymes so people can create their own.