Being able to control this chemical on/off button could have massive implications for curing diseases related to obesity including diabetes, cardio vascular disease, stroke and even skin problems like acne. But the implications may be wider.
The results suggest that the switch may be a common characteristic of many more enzymes. Since enzymes are miniscule worker-molecules that control a vast variety of functions in cells, if the switches are standard, it may well be one of the most important discoveries in enzymology.
"If many enzymes turn out to be switched on in the same way as the ones we've studied, this opens a door to understanding and maybe curing, a wide range of diseases", said professor Dimitrios Stamou, Department of Chemistry, who headed the team.
The discovery of the enzymatic ignition key contradicts previous ideas of how cells control the function of enzymes such as the fat eating lipase used in the current study.
Researchers used to think that these enzymes work continuously at varying levels of efficiency. But in fact they are quite lazy. Very much like construction workers they work at a fixed efficiency for a given amount of time (working hours), and then they rest. And that's good news for enzyme designers.
Tripping their newfound switch resulted in tripling the working hours of lipase enzymes, from 15 percent of the time to 45 percent by the Copenhagen team.
Now that we have understood how to switch enzymes on and off we could use this knowledge in the future both for curing diseases but also to design novel enzymes for industrial applications.
The discovery has been in the prominent scientific journal "Journal of the American Chemical Society".