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European collaboration shines a light on enzyme discovery for industry

Posted on 28 May 2019

Scientists at the University of York are playing a key role in a European consortium which has provided a disruptive technological breakthrough to allow the discovery and characterisation of novel enzymes for industrial biotechnology.

Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash


The technology will open the way to more efficient industrial processes such as in the biofuel, animal feed and paper and pulp industries.

The breakthrough – termed activity-based protein profiling (ABPP) – allows the immediate visualization of the activity of enzymes in complex samples secreted by wood-decaying fungi and bacteria, whose enzymes are central to many current and planned industrial processes.

The rise in genome sequencing has provided scientists with hundreds of thousands of DNA sequences for enzymes with potential societal and industrial use, but with limited ways to rapidly characterise their activity, function and role.

Such annotation is especially important for enzymes involved in plant polysaccharide degradation where digestion of these intractable materials, for example in biofuels, often demands enzymes are active under extreme reaction conditions.

The team included scientists from the Universities of York, Leiden, Barcelona, and the French National Institute for Agricultural Research/University of Aix-Marseille. It applied technologies originally designed to use in clinical diagnosis of genetic disease and adapted these for industrial enzyme discovery.


Professor Gideon Davies, who led the York team, said: “Activity-based probes have provided rapid diagnostic solutions for genetic disease, here we have developed the technology to allow the discovery and characterization of enzymes for biomass degradation, opening the way to more efficient industrial processes.”

And Professor Hermen Overkleeft, from Leiden University, added: “It’s an exciting new application of activity-based protein profiling. We can now synthesise bespoke probes for key industrial processes where specific insight is needed into enzyme function and stability.

“Enzymatic solutions to societal and industrial challenges will benefit the planet considerably, and it’s great to be rolling out a transformative new technology in this arena.”


Their breakthrough has been the synthesis and application of a suite of coloured probes, which provide a rapid diagnostic fingerprint for different enzyme classes. The ‘flick of the switch’ method providing diagnosis of activity, specificity, and stability under any user-defined conditions using visible light allows, not only the discovery of new enzyme activities, but also the rapid assessment of their potential utility.

The work has recently been published in the American Chemical Society publication ACS Central Science (DOI 0.1021/acscentsci.9b00221).

Notes to editors:

The work in York was funded by the Biotechnology and Biosciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the European Research Council.