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Major breakthrough could help detoxify pollutants

21 Oct 2014

Scientists at The University of Manchester hope a major breakthrough could lead to more effective methods for detoxifying dangerous pollutants like PCBs and dioxins. The result is a culmination of 15 years of research and has been published in Nature. It details how certain organisms manage to lower the toxicity of pollutants.

Credit: Nature and Professor David Leys et al
Credit: Nature and Professor David Leys et al

The team at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology were investigating how some natural organisms manage to lower the level of toxicity and shorten the life span of several notorious pollutants. 

Professor David Leys explains the research: “We already know that some of the most toxic pollutants contain halogen atoms and that most biological systems simply don't know how to deal with these molecules. However, there are some organisms that can remove these halogen atoms using vitamin B12. Our research has identified that they use vitamin B12 in a very different way to how we currently understand it.”

He continues: “Detailing how this novel process of detoxification works means that we are now in a position to look at replicating it. We hope that ultimately new ways of combating some of the world’s biggest toxins can now be developed more quickly and efficiently.”

It’s taken Professor Leys 15 years of research to reach this breakthrough, made possible by a dedicated European Research Council (ERC) grant. The main difficulty has been in growing enough of the natural organisms to be able to study how they detoxify the pollutants. The team at the MIB were finally able to obtain key proteins through genetic modification of other, faster growing organisms. They then used X-ray crystallography to study in 3D how halogen removal is achieved.

The main drive behind this research has been to look at ways of combatting the dozens of very harmful molecules that have been released into the environment. Many have been directly expelled by pollutants or from burning household waste. As the concentration of these molecules has increased over time their presence poses more of a threat to the environment and humanity. Some measures have already been taken to limit the production of pollutants, for example PCBs were banned in the United States in the 1970s and worldwide in 2001.

Professor Leys says: “As well as combatting the toxicity and longevity of pollutants we’re also confident that our findings can help to develop a better method for screening environmental or food samples.”

Notes for editors

The paper: 'Reductive dehalogenase structure suggests a mechanism for B12-dependent dehalogenation' is published in Nature.
DOI: 10.1038/nature13901

For more information and interview requests please contact:

Morwenna Grills
Media Relations Officer
Faculty of Life Sciences
The University of Manchester

Tel: 0161 275 2111
Mob: 07920 087466

The European Research Council (ERC)
Set up in 2007 by the European Union, the ERC aims to stimulate scientific excellence in Europe by encouraging competition for funding between the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age based in Europe.
Since its launch, the ERC has awarded grants to around 4,500 researchers performing frontier research in Europe. The ERC operates according to an "investigator-driven", or "bottom-up" approach, allowing both early-career and senior scientists to identify new opportunities in all fields of research (Physical Sciences and Engineering, Life Sciences and Social Sciences and Humanities), without predetermined priorities.
The ERC has a total budget of over €13 billion under Horizon 2020, the new EU research and innovation programme for 2014 - 2020.