Cancer Researchers Stumble On Greener Way To Make Nylon
Alan McStravick for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
In 1935, a brilliant scientist became the father of a new field of chemistry. Polymers, which occur both naturally in organic compounds like proteins and starches as well as synthetically as plastics, were the focus of Wallace Carothers’ research, an Iowa-born accounting student at Tarkio College who later changed his field of study to science.
While still an undergraduate he was appointed head of the chemistry department. While no one will refute his obvious talent and skill in his field, especially it is widely known that this appointment had more to do with a general personnel shortage at the college due to World War I.
This post was just a stepping stone for Carothers, as he matriculated to the University of Illinois where he earned both his Master’s and Doctoral degrees before taking a teaching position at Harvard. It was while Carothers was at Harvard that he began his research into the chemical structure of polymers in 1924. Polymers are large molecules that are comprised of repeating structural units of smaller articles. With only four years of intensive study in this field, it wasn’t long before Carothers was offered a lucrative private-industry position.
In 1928, in what is now recognized as a paradigm shift for corporations, the DuPont chemical company opened their own research lab and asked Carothers to head their research division. Despite his previous years of scientific inquiry into the nature of polymers, there was still a lot about this field that was unknown. It was at DuPont that Carothers and his research team began to investigate the acetylene family of chemicals and how they might have more practical uses for industry and the public at large.
Thanks largely to the 1931 collapse of trade relations between the United States and Japan – from whom the U.S. received the bulk of its silk imports – Carothers and his team worked to create a fossil-fuel based fabric that would have uses in industry, military and consumer fields.
Their eventual discovery and creation of nylon was hailed in a 1938 Fortune Magazine article, which stated, “nylon breaks the basic elements like nitrogen and carbon out of coal, air and water to create a completely new molecular structure of its own. It flouts Solomon. It is an entirely new arrangement of matter under the sun, and the first completely new synthetic fiber made by man. In over four thousand years, textiles have seen only three basic developments aside from mechanical mass production: mercerized cotton, synthetic dyes and rayon. Nylon is a fourth.”
So why present a history lesson on a material that has become such a ubiquitous presence in our daily lives? Because while nylon has become an important material in our day-to-day lives, it is created through a process that is highly pollutive. As mentioned above, Caruthers’ chemical recipe for the synthetic substance required the use of fossil fuels, a formula that has been in use for roughly 80 years. That is, until yesterday.
Researchers at the Duke Cancer Institute in Durham, North Carolina, while working towards a cancer cure, came across an elusive molecule that can be used for the production of a cheaper and more ecologically friendly version of nylon.
Published in the September 23 issue of the journal Nature Chemical Biology, their findings describe how some of the genetic and chemical changes that occur in cancerous tumors might actually be used for beneficial purposes.
“In our lab, we study genetic changes that cause healthy tissues to go bad and grow into tumors. The goal of this research is to understand how the tumors develop in order to design better treatments. As it turns out, a bit of information we learned in that process paves the way for a better method to produce nylon,” explained the study’s lead author Zachary J. Reitman, PhD.
Necessary for the production of nylon is adipic acid, which is one of the most widely used chemicals in the world. The pollution released from the refinement process, due to the necessity of using fossil fuels in its production, is a leading contributor to global warming.
In their focus on cancer research, Reitman and his colleagues recognized a similarity between their field of study and that of biochemical engineering. Both fields rely heavily on the use of enzymes, which are molecules that convert one small chemical to another. Enzymes play a major role in both healthy tissues and in tumors, but they are also used to convert organic matter into synthetic materials such as adipic acid.
In 2008 and 2009, Dr. Hai Yan, MD, PhD, and other researchers identified a genetic mutation in glioblastomas and other brain tumors that alter the function of an enzyme known as isocitrate dehydrogenase. Reitman’s research group believed that this mutation could possibly trigger a functional change similar to that of a closely related enzyme found in yeast and bacteria which could create the enzyme they had identified as necessary for the production of a “green” adipic acid.
The idea to create an environmentally friendly adipic acid would require the use of a series of enzymes that could convert cheap sugars, rather than fossil fuels, into adipic acid. One of the many enzymes needed for this, however, just could not be created or replicated. Known as 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase, this enzyme was the essential missing link for this process.
As it turns out, the observation of the mutation noted in 2008/2009 was able to be applied directly to other closely related enzymes and produced the biochemical outcome they had hoped for. From here on, the challenge is to find a way to recreate this on a mass scale, thus eliminating the necessity to use fossil fuels in the production of nylon.
“It’s exciting that sequencing cancer genomes can help us to discover new enzyme activities,” Reitman said. “Even genetic changes that occur in only a few patients could reveal useful new enzyme functions that were not obvious before.”
Dr. Yan, also a senior author of the study was excited not only by the real-world implications of their findings, but also for the future of education, saying, “This is the result of a cancer researcher thinking outside the box to produce a new enzyme and create a precursor for nylon production. Not only is this discovery exciting, it reaffirms the commitment we should be making to science and to encouraging young people to pursue science.”