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Newly Discovered Bacterial Enzyme Produces Useful Biopolymer

Biodegradable, biocompatible polymer has far-reaching potential from medical therapeutics to replacing synthetic plastics

An illustration of the 3D structure of acholetin

The 3D structure of the biosynthetic enzyme that produces acholetin, with key domains highlighted. (Credit: Jose Henrique Pereira/Berkeley Lab.)

— By Destiny Davis

Researchers at the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI) and the Joint Genome Institute (JGI), both located at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, collaborated on a University of British Columbia-led study that identified a bacterial enzyme that produces a novel biopolymer. Described in a recent ACS Central Science article, the polymer, dubbed acholetin, is a chain of sugar molecules known as a polysaccharide. Acholetin is similar in structure to chitin, the major component of insect exoskeletons, and holds promise as a useful biomaterial because of its biodegradability and biocompatibility. 

In work facilitated by the JGI team members, the enzyme was discovered by combing through the genome of a common laboratory contaminant, a bacterium called Acholeplasma laidlawii. The structure of the acholetin-producing enzyme was visualized by JBEI research scientist Jose H. Pereira via X-ray crystallography in the Berkeley Center for Structural Biology at the Advanced Light Source (ALS). Armed with a deep understanding of how the enzyme makes acholetin, scientists now have a target for preventing bacterial contamination and the means to produce acholetin for a variety of purposes. 

The JGI and ALS are Department of Energy Office of Science User Facilities. JBEI is a DOE Bioenergy Research Center.