Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Researchers at Münster University gain new insights into the evolution of proteins


How do bacteria manage to adapt to synthetic environmental toxins and to even develop strategies for using a pesticide as food within less than 70 years? This is what an international team of researchers now investigated. The scientists looked at an enzyme that they had isolated from bacteria that had been exposed to pesticides in the vicinity of factories producing these pesticides. Using a novel combination of methods, they found out how mutations led to biochemical changes that now enable an enzyme to cleave a pesticide. Among other things, the results could help to find new ways to break down and dispose of chemical substances. The study was published in "Nature Chemical Biology".

How do bacteria manage to adapt to synthetic environmental toxins and, for example, to even develop strategies for using a pesticide and chemical warfare agent as food within less than 70 years? The evolutionary adaptations underlying such processes have now been studied in detail by an international team of researchers.

Model of the enzyme that the researchers investigated in their study. The two grey spheres represent the active centre that binds to the pesticide to cleave it.

G. Yang et al/Nat Chem Biol

The scientists looked at an enzyme that they had isolated from bacteria that had been exposed to pesticides in the vicinity of factories producing these pesticides. Using a novel combination of methods, the researchers found out which mutations had occurred in the gene over the years – and how these mutations led to biochemical changes that now enable the enzyme to cleave the pesticide.

"With our study, we show that the technique of the so-called ancestral reconstruction can not only be used to decipher evolutionary processes that date back many centuries, but also to investigate recent adaptations with very rapid evolution, such as those occurring in bacteria," emphasizes co-author Prof. Erich Bornberg-Bauer of the University of Münster, whose group was significantly involved in the study.

The study was carried out in cooperation with the research group led by Prof. Nobuhiko Tokuriki from British Columbia University in Vancouver, Canada. Among other things, the results could help to find new ways to break down and dispose of environmental toxins and chemical substances. The study was published in the journal "Nature Chemical Biology".

Background and method:
The researchers used the method of ancestral reconstruction, which uses algorithms to recover the state of proteins in ancestors. To do this, the scientists "resurrect" a kind of primordial gene that is regarded as the starting point of today's gene family. Classically, this method is used to reproduce proteins that change slowly over millions to billions of years.

In this case, the researchers used this method to trace back a very rapidly evolving enzyme over a few decades and uncover molecular mechanisms that have led to a completely new function – the ability to cleave the pesticide methyl-parathion. It has only been produced industrially for about 70 years and is closely related to nerve toxins, which are also suitable for chemical warfare.

The researchers combined the method of ancestral reconstruction with biochemical and structural tests of the “resurrected” protein in the laboratory and identified five mutations that are mainly responsible for the functional transition of the protein over time.

In a further step, the scientists investigated the extent to which these mutations changed the so-called fitness, i.e. the degree to which the genes adapted at certain points in time. In addition, they characterized many different combinations of the mutations. They used novel statistical analyses to determine the interaction of the genes and their different dominance. These analyses provided information on the underlying molecular interactions – both within the enzyme and between the enzyme and the pesticide.

The researchers found that the five most important of the identified mutations play together in a complex network and ultimately enable the active centre of the enzyme to connect better with the pesticide and thus develop new functions.

"Our combined method can also be used in many other cases to find out more about the molecular mechanisms underlying the evolution of proteins," said co-author Elias Dohmen from the University of Münster, who reconstructed the ancestral protein sequences for the study as part of his PhD thesis in the Molecular Evolution and Bioinformatics group.

In future investigations, the scientists plan to test more proteins with different functions in order to derive generally usable rules from the methodology. In addition, they want to collect even more sequence data in order to be able to create better ancestral reconstructions.

The newly gained knowledge is relevant for the so-called directed evolution – a process that aims at the optimization of enzymes and proteins and is mainly used in industrial biotechnology. In 2018, Frances Arnold of the California Institute of Technology was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this method.

In addition to the British Columbia University in Vancouver and the University of Münster, the Universities of Canberra in Australia and Uppsala in Sweden participated in the study.

The study received financial support from the Human Frontier Science Program, the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Michael Smith Foundation of Health Research, the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation, the Wenner Gren Foundation and the Swedish National Infrastructure for Computing.

Wissenschaftliche Ansprechpartner:

Dr. Fabian Dielmann
phone: +49 251 83-35049


G. Yang et al. (2019). Higher-order epistatic networks underlie the evolutionary fitness landscape of a xenobioticdegrading enzyme. Nature Chemical Biology; DOI: 10.1038/s41589-019-0386-3.

Svenja Ronge | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft
Further information:

More articles from Life Sciences:

nachricht Lab-free infection test could eliminate guesswork for doctors
26.02.2020 | University of Southampton

nachricht MOF co-catalyst allows selectivity of branched aldehydes of up to 90%
26.02.2020 | National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) MARVEL

All articles from Life Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: High-pressure scientists in Bayreuth discover promising material for information technology

Researchers at the University of Bayreuth have discovered an unusual material: When cooled down to two degrees Celsius, its crystal structure and electronic properties change abruptly and significantly. In this new state, the distances between iron atoms can be tailored with the help of light beams. This opens up intriguing possibilities for application in the field of information technology. The scientists have presented their discovery in the journal "Angewandte Chemie - International Edition". The new findings are the result of close cooperation with partnering facilities in Augsburg, Dresden, Hamburg, and Moscow.

The material is an unusual form of iron oxide with the formula Fe₅O₆. The researchers produced it at a pressure of 15 gigapascals in a high-pressure laboratory...

Im Focus: From China to the South Pole: Joining forces to solve the neutrino mass puzzle

Study by Mainz physicists indicates that the next generation of neutrino experiments may well find the answer to one of the most pressing issues in neutrino physics

Among the most exciting challenges in modern physics is the identification of the neutrino mass ordering. Physicists from the Cluster of Excellence PRISMA+ at...

Im Focus: Therapies without drugs

Fraunhofer researchers are investigating the potential of microimplants to stimulate nerve cells and treat chronic conditions like asthma, diabetes, or Parkinson’s disease. Find out what makes this form of treatment so appealing and which challenges the researchers still have to master.

A study by the Robert Koch Institute has found that one in four women will suffer from weak bladders at some point in their lives. Treatments of this condition...

Im Focus: A step towards controlling spin-dependent petahertz electronics by material defects

The operational speed of semiconductors in various electronic and optoelectronic devices is limited to several gigahertz (a billion oscillations per second). This constrains the upper limit of the operational speed of computing. Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter in Hamburg, Germany, and the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay have explained how these processes can be sped up through the use of light waves and defected solid materials.

Light waves perform several hundred trillion oscillations per second. Hence, it is natural to envision employing light oscillations to drive the electronic...

Im Focus: Freiburg researcher investigate the origins of surface texture

Most natural and artificial surfaces are rough: metals and even glasses that appear smooth to the naked eye can look like jagged mountain ranges under the microscope. There is currently no uniform theory about the origin of this roughness despite it being observed on all scales, from the atomic to the tectonic. Scientists suspect that the rough surface is formed by irreversible plastic deformation that occurs in many processes of mechanical machining of components such as milling.

Prof. Dr. Lars Pastewka from the Simulation group at the Department of Microsystems Engineering at the University of Freiburg and his team have simulated such...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting: Around 70 Laureates set to meet with young scientists from approx. 100 countries

12.02.2020 | Event News

11th Advanced Battery Power Conference, March 24-25, 2020 in Münster/Germany

16.01.2020 | Event News

Laser Colloquium Hydrogen LKH2: fast and reliable fuel cell manufacturing

15.01.2020 | Event News

Latest News

Scientists 'film' a quantum measurement

26.02.2020 | Physics and Astronomy

Melting properties determine the biological functions of the cuticular hydrocarbon layer of ants

26.02.2020 | Interdisciplinary Research

Lights, camera, action... the super-fast world of droplet dynamics

26.02.2020 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>