Washington, Jan 31 : An American researcher is trying to shed light on the complicated structure of enzymes, by studying how the protein-based molecules break down cellulose.
Iowa State University's Peter Reilly is working to understand how the structures of enzymes influence their mechanism and activity in breaking down cellulose.
According to Reilly, his work is opening doors for new and better applications of enzymes, which, for example, could be a key to making the production of cellulosic ethanol more efficient and more economical.
Enzymes are proteins produced by living organisms that accelerate chemical reactions.
Reilly is principally interested in the enzymes that work on cellulose. He has a three-year, 306,000 dollars grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a basic understanding of how they work.
Enzymes that work on cellulose are known as cellulases, and are commonly produced by fungi and bacteria.
One enzyme Reilly has studied and illustrated, a cellobiohydrolase enzyme has an extension that works like a little plow. It rips up one cellulose chain from a cellulose crystal and feeds it into a tunnel on the main enzyme surface so that it can be chopped up.
Reilly is looking forward to explain how enzymes attack and break chemical bonds. He'll display diagrams on his office computer that show the bonds in cellulose molecules. He'll point out where enzymes attack some of those bonds. He'll say the chemical reactions create high-energy transition states that scientists are working hard to understand.
"These different enzymes all do the same thing. They all break down bonds between the sugars that make up cellulose," he said.