In the ancient Japanese art of origami, different ways of folding a single sheet of paper can transform it into an aeroplane, a flower, or a bird. Plants perform origami with chemical compounds, taking individual precursor molecules and using enzymes to fold and modify them to create many variations. For several years, Professor Anne Osbourn of the John Innes Centre has been studying such chemical origami reactions that give rise to a large group of plant compounds called triterpenes, many of which may have valuable uses in the pharmaceutical, agricultural and biotechnology industries.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’. The researchers worked on triterpene synthase SAD1 and realized that they could modify the enzyme to obtain varied scaffolds and also generate highly oxygenated scaffolds which could have varied applications in medicine and chemical industries. They are building a machine which produces these triterpenes in large and cost-effective quantities. The researchers hope to improve triterpenes to make better medicines with fewer side effects, or improve the specificity of pesticides and make completely new, custom-designed triterpenes to any specification, which could lead to development of new anticancer drugs, agrochemicals, industrial chemicals or cosmetics.
“All of the triterpenes we know about are based on a suite of similar molecular ‘scaffolds’ – we want to understand how these scaffolds are made, ‘folded’ and ‘decorated’ so that we might be able to engineer completely new triterpenes to make new medicines and industrial chemicals, or to improve those we already have,” said Professor Osbourn.