Enzyme research could help burn fat three times faster

Chemists at the University of Copenhagen have discovered that enzymes involved in breaking down fat, can now be manipulated to work three times harder by turning on a molecular switch. 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.

According to Professor Dimitrios Stamou, who heads a multidisciplinary team of scientists at the Nano Science Center, and Department of Chemistry at the University of Copenhagen: “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.”

The discovery of these enzyme switches 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. 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. Using these new found enzyme switches resulted in tripling the working hours of fat eating lipase enzymes, from 15 percent of the time to 45 percent of the time.

Assistant Professor Nikos Hatzakis, who was deeply involved in the scrutiny of the enzymes explained: “In enzymes, function is decided by the shape of the molecule. So making them more efficient would have required a major reconstruction. In some cases so difficult that it is on the order of transforming a handsaw into a chainsaw. Changing the fundamental shape of a tool is always difficult, whether it’s a saw or an enzyme. But working longer hours with the same tool is infinitely easier. What we’ve achieved, is to make enzymes work longer hours.”

Observing that enzymes even have an on off switch may sound easy, but first the Bio Nano team had to devise a way to study individual enzyme molecules. These are so small, that there are trillions in just a drop of water. To perform their studies the researchers chose a fat degrading lipase enzyme. They used fat that would emit light each time the enzyme took a bite. This way they could monitor each and every single action of the enzyme.

Proffesor Dimitrios Stamou concluded by saying: “Now that we have understood how to switch enzymes on and off, we could use this knowledge in the future, for curing a wide range of diseases and conditions.”

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