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A genetic mutation found in brain tumors could result in a cheaper, greener way of manufacturing nylon, according to researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute. Described in the September 23, 2012 issue of Nature Chemical Biology, the finding arose from the subversive notion that the precise genetic and chemical changes that make a normal cell cancerous could have beneficial uses in a different context. “In our lab, we study genetic changes that cause healthy tissues to go bad and grow into tumors. The goal of this research is to understand how the tumors develop in order to design better treatments,” says Zachary J. Reitman, an associate in research at Duke and lead author of the study. “As it turns out, a bit of information we learned in that process paves the way for a better method to produce nylon.”
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LEMONADE FROM LEMONS
Nylon is a ubiquitous fiber used in everything from carpeting and upholstery to apparel. A key component in its production is adipic acid, a widely used industrial chemical currently derived from fossil fuels. As far as alternatives go, one of the most promising approaches for less-polluting adipic-acid production involves a series of enzymes that convert cheap sugars into organic compounds. Just one problem: The assembly line has a missing link—a critical enzyme known as 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase—that scientists have never managed to synthesize.
Nylon is a ubiquitous fiber used in everything from carpeting and upholstery to apparel.
In 2008 and 2009, Duke researchers identified a genetic mutation in glioblastomas and other brain tumors that alters the function of another important enzyme: isocitrate dehydrogenase. Reitman and his team acted on a hunch that the mutation might trigger a similar change to enzymes in the same family. Their instincts were right on the nose. By fiddling with homoisocitrate dehydrogenase, a closely related enzyme found in yeast and bacteria, the scientists hit the jackpot: the elusive 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase they needed to whip up their lower-impact adipic acid.
“It’s exciting that sequencing cancer genomes can help us to discover new enzyme activities,” Reitman says. “Even genetic changes that occur in only a few patients could reveal useful new enzyme functions that were not obvious before.”