Researchers from the Center for Advanced Bioenergy and Bioproducts Innovation (CABBI) say they have discovered a way to modify azaarene molecules using light to generate new chemical reactions.
The discovery could lead to advancements in biofuels and less-toxic agrochemicals, CABBI said in a Nov. 16 news release. Their focus is on azaarenes, a key building block in various compounds.
Central to their research is the use of photoenzymatic systems. CABBI, a U.S. Department of Energy-funded Bioenergy Research Center at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, describes the process as supercharging enzymes with a flashlight, enabling them to assemble or repair molecular structures in unprecedented ways.
The CABBI team says their study, published in Nature Chemistry, has unearthed novel chemical reactions that were previously thought to be out of reach.
Azaarenes are the building blocks in various compounds. But the challenge has always been in their manipulation, say CABBI researchers.
The team developed an ene-reductase system — a specialized molecular toolkit using the ene-reductase enzyme — that allowed them to intricately modify these molecules without collateral damage.
One of the study’s key achievements included mastering the enantioselective hydrogen atom transfer. Molecules often come in left- and right-handed versions, or enantiomers, much like gloves. The team’s method allows them to selectively target and adjust either version with unprecedented precision, the researchers say. Also, through remote stereo control they could make those precise adjustments from a distance.
The study also introduced the concept of asymmetric photocatalysis, a technique that ensures consistency in these reactions. That can open new avenues for producing biofuels and bioproducts from a broader range of biomass feedstocks.
“With our novel approach to azaarenes and the use of enzymatic hydrogen atom transfer, we’re not just pushing boundaries in chemistry,” says one of the study’s lead authors Huimin Zhao, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “We’re laying down the foundations for a more sustainable and innovative future. Our research has broadened the toolkit available for eco-friendly production and has the potential to catalyze breakthroughs in agrochemicals and beyond.”