Synthetic enzymes expand applications in defence and industry

Protecting lives and saving energy are among the leading aims of research at the University of Melbourne to create highly stable synthetic enzymes for military and industrial applications.

Dr Luke Connal is a polymer design specialist with the University’s Department of Chemical Engineering whose work focuses on creating enzyme “mimics”.

A project to develop new types of synthetic enzymes is currently being funded by the United States Army.  Dr Connal says one potential application is a synthetic enzyme to counter the deadly nerve agent sarin. This project is being funded by the United States Army.

Sarin blocks the enzymes in the body that provide the signals to operate muscles – specifically, the signal to contract muscles. Inhaled, or absorbed through the skin or eyes, a few drops of sarin can kill within minutes.

Sarin was used to deadly effect in the bombing of a Tokyo subway in 1995 and most recently in Damascus during the Syrian civil war in 2013.

“We don't actually work with sarin itself, but we work with other classes of phosphorous chemistry, which provide us with a model,” Dr Connal says. “Our aim is to create a synthetic ‘sacrificial’ enzyme, which can absorb the effects of sarin.”

He says the new polymer enzyme could be used to coat military equipment, such as tanks. The complex electrical systems within such equipment make them virtually impossible to wash down, so this enzyme would provide an alternative way to avoid contamination.

Other work at the Connal Laboratory at the University of Melbourne focuses on creating synthetic enzymes with greater operating range than biological enzymes for a variety of industrial processes – from biodiesel and chemical manufacturing to food processing. Temperature and pH are particularly critical, Dr Connal says.

“In bioethanol or biodiesel production, for example, you either need an enzyme that will operate at high temperatures, or you pay to cool down your production stream. A synthetic enzyme that can operate at higher temperatures could significantly reduce energy use.”

More information

Luke Connal, luke.connal@unimelb.edu.au