Researchers have used a completely man-made chemical enzyme to neutralise a toxin found naturally in fruits and vegetables.
While studying for her PhD in chemistry at the University of Copenhagen Dr. Jeannette Bjerre showed how a novel so-called chemzyme was able to decompose glycoside esculin, a toxin found in horse-chestnuts.
Chemzymes are designed molecules emulating the targeting and efficiency of naturally occurring enzymes and Bjerre is pleased about her results.
"Showing that these molecules are capable of decomposing toxins required vast amounts of work and time. But it's been worth every minute because it proves the general point that it's possible to design artificial enzymes for this class of task", explained Bjerre.
For enzymes as well as for their artificial counterparts even small changes in structure will have massive consequences for functionality.
In this, enzymes are very much like hand-tools, where scissors and flat nosed pliers, though almost identical, have very different duties.
So far no one has succeeded in designing chemzymes that are anywhere near as fast as their naturally occurring cousins. But they are far more resilient.
Manmade enzymes take on heat and solvents without batting a molecular eyelid. One of the consequences of this is that chemzymes can be mass-produced using industrial chemical processes.
This is a huge advantage when you need a lot of product in a hurry.
Producing natural enzymes in industrial settings is considerably more time-consuming because they have to be grown. Rather like one grows apples or grain.
So the robust and designable compounds may turn out to be just what's needed for a wide variety of jobs.