Support to uncover how enzymes work and communicate – University of Copenhagen

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19 January 2015

Support to uncover how enzymes work and communicate

VILLUM FOUNDATION Young Investigators Programme

Almost all diseases are caused by enzymes malfunctioning in our bodies, so a thorough understanding of how a single enzyme works and of how it gets others to work could help us build better pharmaceuticals.

Studying single enzymes is not trivial though. They are so small, that you would need to string more than a thousand average enzymes together to bridge a cross section of a human hair. Now Associate Professor Nikos Hatzakis of the Department of Chemistry’s Nano-Science Centers Center for Synthetic Biology has received a grant of 6. 8 mio. DKK from the VILLUM FOUNDATION Young investigators programme to investigate the inner workings of enzymes.

Support for young talent

The aim of the Villum Foundation Young Investigator Programme is to support especially talented, young Danish researchers in science and technology with ambitions of establishing their own, independent research profiles. The funds will go towards buying a single molecule microscope and hiring two postdocs and a PHD-student to work on the project for the next several years.

Function follows form

The shape of an enzyme decides what kind of work it can do. That is a central view in biology. But knowing only the superficial shape of the enzyme has turned out to be insufficient, says Hatzakis.

“We know protein structure defines function. Picture the difference between a formula 1 car and an off-road car. These obviously have completely different capabilities. But you may also see two superficially identical 4wheel drives which have diverse engines, gearboxes and so on. These would also have different capabilities. What we are looking for is a way to figure out how the dynamics of enzymes control their function, or, if you will, a way to open the hood to investigate the engines and gearbox of enzymes”, explains Nikos Hatzakis.

Decoding communication is crucial

Some enzymes are also known to trigger biological processes such as the production of hormones, so figuring out how they communicate and which signals start which jobs would also be immensely useful.

Investigating a serial killer and environmental hero

Hatzakis has already conducted breakthrough research on the enzyme POR and he aims to focus the continued studies on this particular enzyme. In part because it is central to a number of different hormonal imbalances such as dwarfism, allergies and cardio-vascular diseases, but a certain family of PORs also drives all plant biosynthetic pathways, so understanding these could pave the way to more environmentally sustainable production methods in a wide range of industries.

“Acquiring this level of knowledge will reshape our understanding of controlling enzyme and protein function as well as our ability to predict and develop biocatalysts with tailor-made functions. For example for green energy”, says the Young Investigator Nikos Hatzakis.

Students to carry out important research

Apart from the PHD and the Postdocs, Hatzakis also hopes to attract a number of bachelor and M.Sc. students to perform project- and theses-work in relation to the venture.