After years of wondering how organisms managed to create self-medications, such as anti-fungal agents, chemists have discovered the simple secret.
Scientists already knew that a particular enzyme was able to coax a reaction out of stubborn chemical concoctions to generate a large family of medically valuable compounds called halogenated natural products. The question was, how do they do it?
Chemists would love to have that enzyme's capability so they could efficiently reproduce, or slightly re-engineer, those products, which include antibiotics, anti-tumor agents, and fungicides.
Thanks to MIT chemistry Associate Professor Catherine L. Drennan's recent crystallography sleuthing, the secret to the enzyme's enviable prowess has come to light and it appears almost anti-climactic. It's simply a matter of the size of one of its parts.
"If an enzyme is a gun that fires to cause a reaction, then we wanted to know the mechanism that pulls the trigger," Drennan said. "In chemistry, we often have to look at 'molecules in, molecules out.' With halogenated natural products, though, we couldn't figure out how it happened, because the chemicals are so nonreactive. Now that we have the enzyme's structure and figured out how it works, it makes sense. But it's not what we would have predicted."
To make halogenated natural products, enzymes catalyze the transformation of a totally unreactive part of a molecule, in this case a methyl group. They break specific chemical bonds and then replace a hydrogen atom with a halide, one of the elements from the column of the periodic table containing chlorine, bromine and iodine. In the lab, that's a very challenging task, but nature accomplishes it almost nonchalantly. The trick involves using a turbo-charged enzyme containing iron.