In scientific terms, the work revolves around generating artificial enzymes containing non-canonical (unnatural) amino acids to achieve novel and improved biocatalytic activities. In her own words, Dr. Drienovská expresses how innovations in chemistry have deepened her understanding of chemical reactions, motivating her to leverage this knowledge to introduce new functionalities to biocatalysts.
Biocatalysis entails harnessing the potential of natural substances, specifically enzymes, to accelerate chemical reactions. It is regarded as a more sustainable alternative to traditional catalytic processes, as it eliminates the need for toxic solvents, does not require extreme heat or pressure, and demands a smaller quantity of substances to achieve the same effect. However, one of the primary limitations of current biocatalysis lies in its reliance on catalytic reactions present in nature. For instance, while fluorine substituents are commonly utilized in pharmaceuticals, they rarely occur in nature. Consequently, these reactions necessitate the use of chemical catalysts instead of biocatalysis.
By using unnatural amino acids, dr. Drienovská is attempting to introduce new-to-nature functionalities, such as ones enabling fluorination reaction to natural enzymes. Her group just completed preparation of a panel of new unnatural amino acids for biocatalysis that will be published in the near future. Dr. Drienovská emphasizes the importance of contributing to a more sustainable world: “Not everyone can cure cancer, but we can do our best to change the world for the better in other ways.”