NU professors get $5 million for enzyme studies

Phillip Swarts

Six Northwestern professors have received a $5 million grant from the United States Air Force to try to create artificial enzymes to act as catalysts in chemical reactions.

Profs. Chad Mirkin, Joseph Hupp, SonBinh Nguyen, Mark Ratner, Karl Scheidt and Fraser Stoddart were granted $5 million to be distributed over a period of five years to try to develop artificial enzymes.

The project seeks to create what are known as Metal Organic Frameworks, or MOFs. Ratner said a MOF is a piece of metal in a “big organic soup.” The metal is where the chemical reaction takes place, while the organic compounds surrounding it, such as sugars, determine what shape the molecule will take and how the metals will react.

“By causing the sugars to come together in a particular structural way, then you position these metals in a particular structural way. That mimics the way lots of real enzymes work,” Ratner said.

The enzymes could have a variety of functions such as absorbing and holding certain molecules, Ratner said. They could be placed in factories to capture carbon dioxide and prevent it from escaping into the environment, or to store hydrogen for use as an alternate energy source.

“Think of it as a sponge, a very special sponge that has the right shape to really grab lots of different molecules,” Ratner said.

Nguyen, meanwhile, hopes the enzymes will be used for chemical conversions, such as getting energy from sunlight, or converting volatile natural gas into a usable liquid form.

“The Holy Grail is methane to methanol,” Nguyen said.

He added that for military and national defense interests, the artificial enzymes could be used to detect biological warfare agents, with the goal of “trying to then warn people ahead of time so that they can develop a countermeasure for it.”

Ideally in five years, the team will have developed blueprints for different enzymes, Nguyen said. Then scientists could follow a simple recipe for creating an artificial enzyme to trigger whatever kind of reaction they want.

“I think the possibilities are limitless,” Nguyen said.

All the professors spoke highly of their colleagues. “We have probably the best team in the field here,” Nguyen said.

In an e-mail statement, Scheidt said he was “extremely excited to be working with such a