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Without enzyme catalyst, slowest known biological reaction takes 1 trillion years

CHAPEL HILL -- All biological reactions within human cells depend on enzymes. Their power as catalysts enables biological reactions to occur usually in milliseconds. But how slowly would these reactions proceed spontaneously, in the absence of enzymes - minutes, hours, days? And why even pose the question?

One scientist who studies these issues is Dr. Richard Wolfenden, Alumni distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics and chemistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. In 1998, he reported a biological transformation deemed "absolutely essential" in creating the building blocks of DNA and RNA would take 78 million years in water.

"Now we've found one that's 10,000 times slower than that," Wolfenden said. "Its half-time - the time it takes for half the substance to be consumed - is 1 trillion years, 100 times longer than the lifetime of the universe. Enzymes can make this reaction happen in 10 milliseconds."

Wolfenden, along with co-authors Chetan Lad and Nicholas H. Williams of Sheffield University in England, published a report of their new findings April 29 in the online "early edition" of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Print publication is slated for May 13.

The report highlights the catalytic power of phosphatase enzymes to tremendously enhance the transformation rate in water of a specific group of biochemicals: phosphate monoesters. Protein phosphatase enzymes acting on these monoesters help regulate the molecular cross-talk within human cells, the cell signaling pathways and biochemical switches involved in health and disease.

"We have esters floating around in our cells with all kinds of functions," Wolfenden said. "Every aspect of cell signaling follows the action of the type of phosphatase enzyme that breaks down phosphate monoesters. Other phosphatases highlighted in the study for their catalytic power help mobilize carbohydrates
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Contact: Leslie H. Lang
llang@med.unc.edu
919-843-9687
University of North Carolina School of Medicine
5-May-2003


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