New NIGMS ‘Glue Grant’ Takes Aim at Unknown Enzymes


May 20, 2010

Genome sequencing projects have uncovered thousands of previously unknown enzymes. But the function of at least half of all enzymes, including many in humans, remains unclear.

Now, with support from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), a research team plans to create a way to identify the functions of unknown enzymes. They aim to reveal what the enzymes can do in a laboratory and what they actually do in nature.

NIGMS is supporting the project through a glue grant that is expected to total $33.9 million over 5 years. Glue grants are so named because they bring together large, interdisciplinary teams of scientists. This project, called the Collaborative Center for an Enzyme Function Initiative, includes researchers in eight states across the country.

Led by John Gerlt of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the multifaceted effort will combine structural biology, computer modeling, genetic and biochemical techniques. The scientists will attempt to predict enzyme functions based on amino acid sequences (which are readily available) and structures (which can be experimentally determined or computationally approximated). They will test their function-forecasting strategy on five very different and unpredictable families of enzymes.

The project focuses not only on individual enzymes, but also on groups of enzymes and biochemical pathways that organisms use to carry out all life processes. By enabling the scientific community to easily and accurately uncover the function of enzymes, revealing ways to block those enzymes and identifying enzymatic differences between harmless and disease-causing organisms, the work holds enormous promise for advancing science, medicine and industry.