AMES, Iowa Peter Reilly pointed to the framed journal covers decorating his office.
Each of the six showed the swirling, twisting, complicated structure of an enzyme. Those bright and colorful illustrations are the work of his lab. And theyre part of Reillys work to understand how the structure of an enzyme influences its mechanism and its activity.
In other words, hes trying to figure out how is it that these things work, said Reilly, a professor of chemical and biological engineering and an Anson Marston Distinguished Professor of Engineering at Iowa State University.
Thats important because enzymes do a lot for all of us.
Enzymes are proteins produced by living organisms that accelerate chemical reactions. They, for example, work inside the human digestive system to break starch or protein molecules into smaller pieces that can be absorbed by the intestines. Enzymes are also used to produce bread, theyre added to detergents to clean stains and theyre used to treat leather. And because enzymes break down cellulose into simple sugars that can be fermented into alcohol, theyre a big part of producing ethanol from cellulose.
Reilly is particularly interested in the enzymes that work on cellulose. He has a three-year, $306,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop a basic understanding of how they work.
Those enzymes are known as cellulases. Theyre commonly produced by fungi and bacteria. And theyve got a very hard job.
Cellulose is tough stuff. Its in the cell walls of plants. Its what gives a plant its structure.
Its why trees stand up, Reilly said.
He also said, Nature has done its best to break down cellulose.
So different enzymes have developed different ways of attacking cellulose.
One enzyme Reilly has studied and illustrated a cellobiohydrolase enzyme has an extension that works like a little plow. It rips up one cellulose
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Iowa State University