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Smart polymers provide light-activated switch to turn enzymes on and off

Researchers at the University of Washington have applied research in how proteins bind with different molecules to create a molecular switch that enables them to turn an enzyme on and off. The innovation holds promise for a wide range of laboratory processes, including highly targeted drug therapies.

The study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, describes a reversible switch for the enzyme endoglucanase in which light is the trigger for turning the switch on and off.

An enzyme is a protein that acts as a catalyst in initiating or speeding up a chemical reaction in the body. Endoglucanase facilitates the breakdown of cellulose.

The latest research builds on earlier work by the group in the use of so-called "smart polymers" to control access to binding sites on proteins. The polymers are described as "smart" because they sense their environment and alter their properties according to changes in external conditions. The conditions in the earlier work that prompted the polymers to react were temperature and acidity. The latest findings are even more exciting, according to Patrick Stayton, UW professor of bioengineering, because the trigger is light.

"Light is the real interesting one," said Stayton, who, with colleague Allan S. Hoffman, professor of bioengineering, leads the group, which also includes researchers from Genecor International, a California biotech firm. "It's easily reversible it really is a true switch."

To build the switch, the researchers attach tiny smart polymer chains next to the active sites, or the spots where the enzyme binds with target molecules to do their work. Depending on conditions, the polymer threads either extend or contract. One state blocks the site, while the other leaves it open which state accomplishes which function depends on the size of the target molecule.

In the case of endoglucanase, a contracted polymer thread blocks the site and an expa
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Contact: Rob Harrill
rharrill@u.washington.edu
206-543-2580
University of Washington
16-Dec-2002


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