Thursday, November 24, 2016

Using Enzymes to Bind Silicon and Carbon for the First Time Ever

Chemical engineers have found organisms that can bind silicon and carbon together.
Silicon, an interesting element for its unique property to act as both a metal and non-metal, only occurs in bioinorganic compounds like silica shells of diatoms, but what about organic life? Why has evolution ignored this element in carbon-based life? "Abundant in the Earth, but rejected by the biosphere for its wondrous evolutionary tinkering," as Roald Hoffmann put it quite nicely.

Researches have found artificial ways in which silicon can bind to carbon. Frances Arnold, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology, and her colleagues ransacked the protein database for enzymes that catalyzes silicon and carbon bonds. A bacterium found in Iceland's hot springs, Rhodothermus marinus, showed promise, and after synthesizing the gene for this protein, they injected it into E. coli.

If fed the right silicon compounds, the E. coli bacteria with the enzyme would catalyze silicon and carbon, but the team didn't stop there. The wanted a more efficient production of silicon-carbon compounds, so they altered the active region of the enzyme to produce more yield and they were successful. These finding will prove to be useful in the pharmaceutical industry and have opened up research on the evolution of life, in particularly, why silicon hasn't been part of it until now.

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