Dr. Mark Blenner, Assistant Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, recently received a prestigious Young Investigator Award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to study strategies for engineering enzymes for more robust activity in changing and extreme terrestrial environments. The project entitled “Engineering Robust Enzyme Activity Through Fundamental Studies of Extremophile Enzymes” was among 57 awards given out to young scientists and engineers across the country that show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research relevant to U.S. Air Force needs. The award funds 3 years of research for $360,000.
In this research project, Prof. Blenner and his research group are changing the DNA sequence of bacteria and yeast to make new enzymes. They order the exact DNA they want from private suppliers and then apply the DNA into bacteria, such as Saccharomyces cervisiae, the same type of yeast used to make beer.
One enzyme being studied, organophosphate hydrolase, could be used by the Air Force to degrade nerve agents. They are also working with another enzyme called cutinase that can degrade polyester. If they can use it to degrade polyester, they also want to see if they can re-engineer it in the opposite direction to synthesize the polyester material so it could repair itself when activated. For example, a flight jacket torn in combat could repair itself. Enzymes are biological catalysts that withstand only a very narrow range of temperature. The use of enzymes in applications such as environmental sensing, materials fabrication, and materials degradation will require the enzymes to operate in a wide range of temperatures and environmental conditions. Prof. Blenner’s research group is pursuing protein engineering strategies to create new enzymes with robust activity across a wide temperature range.
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