Czech scientists turn toxic waste into water

Finding an agent that would successfully clean up chemical toxins has been a kind of theoretical Holy Grail for chemists. Thanks to a group of scientists at Brno’s Masaryk University it seems the quest is over. The international team has created an enzyme that breaks some of the most persistent chemical waste products down into pure water and carbon dioxide, doing in a few months what takes nature hundreds of years. A bit earlier I spoke with Dr. Jiří Damborský, who headed the team.

“We have developed an engineered enzyme in our laboratory called haloalkane dehalogenase, the enzyme can be used to decontaminate various compounds. And this particular enzyme was developed to have improved activity with the toxic substance 123 trichloropropane.”

Is that the only toxin that it can be applied to or is it a universal cure-all?

“The enzyme to which we applied our new method can be used for decontaminating various substances. Its specificity is very broad, it can convert over a hundred different compounds. The method which we validated in this particular case however is applicable to any other enzyme.”

How have you been working on this?

“This project has lasted for six years.”

And when can we expect to see your discovery put to work?

“The main discovery which was published in the Nature Chemical Biology journal describes a method, a new approach that can be used to tailor enzymes. So the method should be universal and can be applied to many other enzymes, some of them could be of great practical use, so it could be put to use very quickly. We know there are some companies that have tried to develop such technology in the past but they couldn’t put it into practice. So maybe now they can use our enzyme and the technology will work.”

I believe you suspect there may be other, perhaps medical, uses.

“Yes, among the enzymes to which it can be applied there are substances that can be used to produce some high-value chemicals, when can then be used to synthesize drugs.”

Is this discovery going to make millionaires out of all of you?

“I don’t think so. Since we published our method anyone can use it, including companies. So I don’t think this particular discovery will bring any benefit to our group. Of course for us it’s very important that we have had this scientifically very interesting result, and now it’s up to companies to make it profitable.”