Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Scientists in Australia have successfully catalyzed chemical reactions using the replica of a 450 million-year-old enzyme.
The new research, detailed in the journal Nature Catalysts, showed ancient enzymes could survive high temperatures and could be used to develop new drugs, food additives, biofuels and more.
"We looked at how we could use a biological agent, like enzymes, to accelerate chemical reactions, as an alternative to current commercial processes," Elizabeth Gillam, professor of molecular chemistry at the University of Queensland, said in a news release. "It's often very difficult to make precise changes to complex chemicals, but this is essential in many industries, the pharmaceutical industry being a prime example."
Popular methods for speeding up, or catalyzing, the chemical reactions that create new chemicals are often imprecise and produce harmful byproducts.
The new research determined ancient enzymes that survive high temperatures are faster, more effective and use less energy. They also produce fewer toxic byproducts.
"Naturally occurring enzymes do not survive for long enough to make this alternative competitive -- so we came up with a hack," Gillam said.
To replicate an ancient enzyme, scientists used genetic analysis to retrace of the evolutionary history of a group of pre-Cambrian enzymes that thrived when temperatures on Earth were around 60 degrees Celsius.
Based on their analysis, scientists estimated the genetic code of the group's common ancestor. Researcher inserted this code into a bacterium to test the properties of the ancient enzyme replica.
"Thermostable proteins can be devised using sequence data alone from even recent ancestors," researchers wrote in their paper.
Lab tests proved the enzyme was able to survive high temperatures. At ambient temperatures, the replica lasted 100 times longer than naturally occurring, modern enzymes.
"This means more 'bang for your buck' in a commercial process, but also improves environmental sustainability and widens our understanding and use of enzymes in synthetic biology," Gillam said. "The breadth of commercial applications is only limited by the imagination. For example, this discovery could advance fields like gene therapy or help remediate polluted environments -- there's a lot of work to do."