Project has designs on artificial enzymes for drugs and plastics

A European project coordinated at Manchester University is aiming to take a leaf from nature’s book in directing chemical reactions to make the products needed by industry while using the minimum of energy.

The Bionexgen project, which involves 17 partners, including BASF, aims to design artificial enzymes to direct raw materials to form the precise products needed for new drugs, plastics and other chemicals.

‘One of the keys to this is selectivity,’ explained project coordinator Kirk Mason of Manchester University, one of 11 research institutions involved in the €7.8m (£6.7m) project.

Most industrial chemical reactions depend on catalysts to force the components to react, but most large, biologically active compounds have more than one possible form and industrial catalysts typically can’t make one form instead of another.

‘Enzymes are nature’s catalysts, but they act like templates, forcing the components into particular shapes and making them join together,’ Mason explained. ‘It’s that exquisite selectivity that we’re trying to copy.’

Enzymes also make reactions work at room temperature and pressure — using solvents such as water — rather than the extreme conditions and sometimes hazardous solvents needed by industrial processes.

‘They tend to be a more environmentally friendly way of doing things,’ Mason said.

The project has eight work packages, some of which target the production of specific families of compounds of interest to industry, such as amines and compounds related to sugars, which are often important in pharmaceuticals.

These work packages are aiming to develop enzyme-like catalysts, sometimes from scratch and sometimes by adapting the design of existing enzymes.

‘We might tweak a few amino-acids in the protein sequence around the active site of an enzyme to give a different effect, using processes [such as] directed evolution,’ Mason explained.

Other work packages are looking at the practicalities of using these synthetic enzymes in industrial processes, such as methods for supporting the compounds on solid granules, designing fermenting processes and scaling up laboratory reactions to industrial volumes.

‘One thing which is unique, we think, is that we have a module on life-cycle analysis,’ Mason said. ‘You might think you’ve designed a green process because it doesn’t use hydrocarbons, but when you look at the associated treatment processes you need because you’ve taken this new route to a product, it might not be greener at all. This will help us determine that.’