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Enzymes - the energy solution of the future

2017-02-06

Gustav Berggren is developing new methods to study energy efficient enzymes that, among other things, manages the production and combustion of hydrogen.

How do we become independent of coal, oil and other fossil fuels? Gustav Berggren sees the solution in the reaction catalysts of all living biological systems. “Hydrogenases is a group of incredibly efficient enzymes that can not only help us implement more renewable energy in our society. They can also be used to create chemical system with completely new properties.”

Gustav Berggren is a researcher in molecular biomimetics at the Department of Chemistry at the Ångström Laboratory. In 2016, he received a starting grant from the European Research Council, ERC, to map the enzyme hydrogenase. Enzymes are proteins with the ability to increase or decrease the speed of chemical reactions. Hydrogenases are found in some micro-organisms where they specialize in producing and burning hydrogen.

“The hydrogenases are very interesting because they have large biotechnological potential,” says Gustav Berggren. “When we understand exactly how these enzymes work at the atomic level,  the possibility increases to use them for storing energy from renewable energy sources such as sunlight, wind or wave energy, in the form of hydrogen.“

Combines biological and artificial materials

Gustav Berggren compares the micro-organism’s relation to hydrogen, a very energy-rich molecule, with the human relationship to fat: we humans can burn fat to produce energy, but if we add more energy than we burn, the energy can be stored in fat for later use. Micro-organisms have the same switching mechanism: they alternate between feeding on and producing hydrogen in times of energy surplus.

"The hope is to develop a future society fueled by hydrogen gas, inspired by natural energy systems. That’s a goal we’re working towards in our new research project. By combining biological material with artificial, synthetic material, we’re creating enzymes with completely new properties, both in test tubes and in living organisms.”

The goal: energy-producing enzymes

The research group not only investigates the natural reactivity of the hydrogenases when combined with synthetic material. With the help of their groundbreaking technique, the researchers also use synthetic chemistry to manipulate the enzymes.

“The unique features of the new compounds are increasing our understanding of the enzymes.  They allow us to produce tailor-made enzymes optimized for our purposes. I think this holds important keys to our future energy supply," says Gustav Berggren.

In the long run, he envisages their technique paving the way for the production of artificial enzymes, triggering completely new chemical substances and reactions. And not just in energy research: the method makes for intriguing, potential applications and breakthroughs in other fields, including pharmaceutical research.

Right now, Gustav Berggren is setting up a team comprising not just biologists and biochemists, but also specialists in synthetic chemistry.

"It’ll be a combination of expertise and very interdisciplinary work, which is part of the pleasure. The tension that arises when you mix people with very different backgrounds and different know-how, it becomes a bit of a creative chaos.”

Read more about Gustav Berggren’s ERC project “Chemistry and Biology in Synergy - Studies of hydrogenases using a combination of synthetic chemistry and biological tools”

Learn more about ERC Starting Grant and the 2016 result

Information about the Berggren Group

Contact Gustav Berggren