Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

MIT Chemist Discovers Secret Behind Nature's Medicines

Date:
April 26, 2006
Source:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Summary:
MIT scientists have just learned another lesson from nature. After years of wondering how organisms managed to create self-medications, such as anti-fungal agents, chemists led by Professor Catherine Drennan have discovered the simple secret.

Some crystallography sleuthing by Associate Professor Catherine L. Drennan of chemistry has uncovered the secret behind some naturally produced medicinal compounds. Drennan was also recently named a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor.
Credit: Photo : Donna Coveney

MIT scientists have just learned another lesson from nature. After years of wondering how organisms managed to create self-medications, such as anti-fungal agents, chemists have discovered the simple secret.

Related Articles


Scientists already knew that a particular enzyme was able to coax a reaction out of stubborn chemical concoctions to generate a large family of medically valuable compounds called halogenated natural products. The question was, how do they do it?

Chemists would love to have that enzyme's capability so they could efficiently reproduce, or slightly re-engineer, those products, which include antibiotics, anti-tumor agents, and fungicides.

Thanks to MIT chemistry Associate Professor Catherine L. Drennan's recent crystallography sleuthing, the secret to the enzyme's enviable prowess has come to light and it appears almost anti-climactic. It's simply a matter of the size of one of its parts.

"If an enzyme is a gun that fires to cause a reaction, then we wanted to know the mechanism that pulls the trigger," Drennan said. "In chemistry, we often have to look at 'molecules in, molecules out.' With halogenated natural products, though, we couldn't figure out how it happened, because the chemicals are so nonreactive. Now that we have the enzyme's structure and figured out how it works, it makes sense. But it's not what we would have predicted."

To make halogenated natural products, enzymes catalyze the transformation of a totally unreactive part of a molecule, in this case a methyl group. They break specific chemical bonds and then replace a hydrogen atom with a halide, one of the elements from the column of the periodic table containing chlorine, bromine and iodine. In the lab, that's a very challenging task, but nature accomplishes it almost nonchalantly. The trick involves using a turbo-charged enzyme containing iron.

A clue to how these enzymes operate emerged from a 2005 study by Christopher T. Walsh of Harvard Medical School, Drennan's collaborator and co-author of the study published in the March 16 issue of Nature. Looking at the SyrB2 enzyme that the microorganism Pseudomonas syringae uses to produce the antifungal agent syringomycin, he discovered it had a single iron atom in the protein's active site, the part responsible for the chemical reaction.

Drennan and her graduate student Leah C. Blasiak, who was first author of the study, crystallized SyrB2 and then used X-ray crystallography to discover the physical structure of the protein. The X-rays scatter off the crystal, creating patterns that can be reconstructed as a three-dimensional model for study.

Normally, iron-containing enzymes have three amino acids that hold the iron in the active site. In this enzyme, however, one of the typical amino acids was substituted with a much shorter one.

That smaller substitute leaves more room in the active site -- enough space for the halide, in this case a chloride ion, to casually slip inside and bind to the iron, without the grand theatrics chemists had anticipated. After the iron and the chloride bind, the protein closes down around the active site, effectively pulling the trigger on the gun.

"We were surprised," Drennan said. "The change in activity required for an enzyme to be capable of catalyzing a halogenation reaction is so radical that people thought there must be a really elaborate difference in their structures. But it's just a smaller amino acid change in the active site. Things are usually not this simple, but there's an elegant beauty in this simplicity," and it may be what gives other enzymes the prowess required for making other medicinally valuable halogenated natural products, too.

The research was partially funded by the National Institutes of Health.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Cite This Page:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "MIT Chemist Discovers Secret Behind Nature's Medicines." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 April 2006. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060426174320.htm>.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2006, April 26). MIT Chemist Discovers Secret Behind Nature's Medicines. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 21, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060426174320.htm
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "MIT Chemist Discovers Secret Behind Nature's Medicines." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/04/060426174320.htm (accessed December 21, 2014).

Share This


More From ScienceDaily



More Health & Medicine News

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

The Best Tips to Curb Holiday Carbs

The Best Tips to Curb Holiday Carbs

Buzz60 (Dec. 19, 2014) It's hard to resist those delicious but fattening carbs we all crave during the winter months, but there are some ways to stay satisfied without consuming the extra calories. Vanessa Freeman (@VanessaFreeTV) has the details. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com
Sierra Leone Bikers Spread the Message to Fight Ebola

Sierra Leone Bikers Spread the Message to Fight Ebola

AFP (Dec. 19, 2014) More than 100 motorcyclists hit the road to spread awareness messages about Ebola. Nearly 7,000 people have now died from the virus, almost all of them in west Africa, according to the World Health Organization. Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

Researchers Test Colombian Village With High Alzheimer's Rates

AFP (Dec. 19, 2014) In Yarumal, a village in N. Colombia, Alzheimer's has ravaged a disproportionately large number of families. A genetic "curse" that may pave the way for research on how to treat the disease that claims a new victim every four seconds. Duration: 02:42 Video provided by AFP
Powered by NewsLook.com
The Best Protein-Filled Foods to Energize You for the New Year

The Best Protein-Filled Foods to Energize You for the New Year

Buzz60 (Dec. 19, 2014) The new year is coming and nothing will energize you more for 2015 than protein-filled foods. Fitness and nutrition expert John Basedow (@JohnBasedow) gives his favorite high protein foods that will help you build muscle, lose fat and have endless energy. Video provided by Buzz60
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins