$850,000 in funding for next-generation enzymes

Friday, 13 September, 2013

University of Waikato Biological Sciences Professor Vic Arcus and his research group have been awarded $850,000 for a two-year project to develop a new method for designing ‘next-generation enzymes’ for commercial use. The grant is part of the university’s $5 million research funding allocated in the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s 2013 science investment round.

The team consists of Professor Arcus, Waikato Post-Doctoral Fellow Dr Joanne Hobbs, Professor Emily Parker from the University of Canterbury, Dr Wayne Patrick from the University of Otago and Dr Dave Saul from Hamilton biotechnology company ZyGEM. Professor Arcus said the research is a continuation of an earlier project “and grew out of our interest in the fundamental properties of enzymes, particularly in their evolution”.

Enzymes are biological catalysts that speed up chemical reactions. They are added to substances such as laundry powder to increase the efficiency of that product. For example, said Professor Arcus, “If you put maltose in water, it takes 1.4 million years to break down, but if you add an enzyme, it only takes 1.4 seconds.”

Dr Hobbs said the research group has “already had success with developing new enzymes” - now, they will be taking information from existing enzymes found in organisms and using that information to design new enzymes “that are 10 times faster and 100 times more stable for commercial use”.

The new project will begin in October and aims to develop enzymes for commercial use in three main manufacturing applications: biofuels; forensics and diagnostics; and chemically complex drugs for the pharmaceutical industry. The research will be conducted at ZyGEM and in laboratories at the three universities.

Professor Arcus said the researchers “hope to contribute to a fledgling, high-value enzyme industry in New Zealand”, which has yet to be developed despite the enormity of the global industry.

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