Evolution photo

Researchers at the University of Minnesota have just created an artificial enzyme in a test tube by following the rules of natural selection.

This artificial enzyme likely resembles what enzymes looked like billions of years ago, when life began evolving.

Enzymes created in laboratories typically follow principles of rational enzyme design, in which researchers develop a preconceived idea of what an enzyme should be, model it on a computer, and then influence its development to produce the molecule that they want.

By contrast, this new enzyme, developed by Burckhard Seelig’s lab at UM’s College of Biological Sciences, was developed in the same way enzymes evolve in nature. A large quantity of candidate proteins were placed together in culture and screened with every successive generation for their ability to perform a desired function (in this case, joining two pieces of RNA together). Unlike rational enzyme design, this approach isn’t limited by what the researchers know about enzyme structure. All the researchers really need to know is what they want from the enzyme. Evolution finds the best way to get there.

Enzymes are manipulated for use in all kinds of things, from manufacturing processes to fuel refinement to the development of new food products. Industry uses both natural and artificial enzymes for specific purposes, as they catalyze the chemical reactions that generate desired processes and products. Now, the ability to generate enzymes by evolutionary means could lead to whole new applications for tailored enzymes that aren’t achievable with rational enzyme design.