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Study sheds new light on key to life on earth

11 Jan 2010

University of Manchester scientists have discovered exactly how plants obtain energy from sunlight through chlorophyll production in a study that helps to explain the design and activity of all enzymes

Professor Nigel Scrutton and his team at the Faculty of Life Sciences have not only gained a more detailed understanding of the production of the most abundant and life sustaining chemical on Earth, they also expect to apply their findings to all enzymes thus allowing the design of novel clinical and industrial processes.

The study, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Biological Chemistry (JBC), also takes in quantum tunnelling, a newly discovered enzyme mechanism where they use energy to blast through rather than climb a chemical reaction.

Professor Scrutton says: 'Chlorophyll is the most abundant and arguably the most important chemical on planet Earth. Without it, there would be no life on Earth as it allows plants to convert light into chemical energy.

'The enzyme that produces it, POR, is light-driven. Now we have a detailed understanding of how the light 'switches on' the chemistry.
This could be applied to other enzymes with a host of implications - we could design our own light-activated enzymes and use these to target disease, or we could harness light - a very cheap form of energy - to drive biocatalysis in general.

His colleague Dr Derren Heyes adds: 'There is only one other light-driven enzyme, DNA photolyase, which repairs genetic mutations. The insights we have gained into POR could be applied to this enzyme although we also hope to apply our findings to other enzymes.

"We were surprised to find that very small changes in the structure of the enzyme were crucial for the light-driven reaction - so we know we need to be very precise when engineering enzymes."

Professor Scrutton says: "The fact that the atoms involved in the enzyme reaction use unusual behaviour (quantum tunneling) found only in the 'quantum world' is creating a lot of interest in the scientific community.

"Ultimately this is very exciting research. We are developing a theory of how enzymes work. Enzymes drive all of life so the research potential is huge."

Notes for editors

The JBC papers 'Mutagenesis alters the catalytic mechanism of the light-driven enzyme protochlorophyllide oxidoreductase' and 'Light activation of hydrogen transfer reactions by nuclear quantum tunnelling in chlorophyll biosynthesis' are available.

For more information, a copy of the papers or an interview with Professor Nigel Scrutton or Dr Derren Heyes contact Media Relations Officer Mikaela Sitford on 07768 980942 or