In the unlikeliest of places, Duke geneticists have created a much coveted enzyme required for the production of eco-friendly and cheap nylon.
While studying a lethal form of brain cancer, Zachary Reitman, a research associate who recently completed his Ph.D. at Duke’s Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center focused on the enzymes coded by cancerous genes. Slight mutations in these cancerous genes can have cascading effects that create prolific tumors, and Reitman realized this mutation could be applied outside the scope of cancer research. The genetic mutation creates an enzyme that has long been missing in the creation of adipic acid, a vital component in the synthesis of nylon.
Reitman and his team’s findings provide more eco-friendly and efficient possibilities for adipic acid to be created out of cheap sugars, rather than from fossil fuels, said Dr. Hai Yan, professor of pathology and senior author of the study.
“Cancer geneticists are using knowledge to help patients, but this is out of the box thinking,” Yan noted. “People have been looking for this enzyme for many, many years.”
The missing enzyme was not discovered on a whim, Reitman said. He had long been discussing it with his friend and research partner Bryan Choi, a fifth year MD-PhD candidate in pathology.
“Since then, we would always talk about this idea during our runs,” Choi said. “We kept on blowing it over. But then one day we were like, ‘Why don’t we just do it?’ We have the training. Why don’t we see if this hypothesis is true?”
Starting in 2008, a team led by Yan identified IDH1 as a gene that, when mutated, can lead to development of the brain tumor glioma, a finding that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
While devoting special attention to a mutant strain of IDH1, Choi and Reitman found that the enzyme the gene codes lends itself to the creation of nylon. A five-carbon molecule is produced that is very similar to the six-carbon molecule needed for the process of creating adipic acid, which is an intermediate step in the process of fabricating nylon.
Nylon, the ubiquitous silky material found in stockings, toothbrush bristles, rope carpet and a host of other industrial uses, relies on adipic acid, which is manufactured using fossil fuels. An alternative source for adipic acid production could cut back on the greenhouse gases released during that process. Reitman’s enzyme does this by allowing adipic acid production using sugar.
The cleaner production of nylon, however, will still require a tremendous undertaking, Reitman said. Although the team does not plan to continue working on this nylon project, the importance is that the findings were published, which makes them accessible to people in relevant fields, he added.
“We used an insight that cancer has provided for us,” he said. “We put our multidisciplinary skills to the test. And one of the many great things about Duke is that we have experts in many different techniques.”
Update: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Haiyan Yao is a full professor, not an assistant professor.