Human progress continually amazes me. When we look back a couple of millions of years ago, the “wise man,” mostly known as Homo sapiens, was only – or remarkably – able to hunt a large range of game using a set of ingenious artifacts. Yet when we look at our societies today, humans have not only tamed animals, but they are capable of building massive skyscrapers or space crafts and microscopes so advanced they can identify individual atoms. Humans are constantly seeking to improve and to unravel the unknown. The result of this intellectual trait is our presence at the top of the pyramid in the animal kingdom. Isn’t it unique? I am very thankful for being such a curious human-being because it led me to become a scientist, or more specifically, a chemist. Along these lines, today I will share with you the fascinating world of enzymes, which (by the way) allowed biological evolution to steadily proceed.

First, what are enzymes? These are molecules called proteins that have catalytic properties, meaning they speed up chemical reactions. Through enzymes’ incredible efficiency, processes within our own bodies take place fast enough to allow us to harvest the necessary energy to maintain our metabolism. I bet you haven’t thought before about your body as a set of machinery holding this incredible army of molecules whose duty is to keep you up to date with your regular tasks every day… Welcome to a different view of life!

In my case, however, things get a bit more complicated because my research deals with the comprehension of not only a single enzyme, but a so-called multienzyme complex. This means that several enzymes with different functions perform sequentially by speeding up consecutive reactions in a cascade, resulting in a final product I am interested in. More specifically, I have been studying the structural biology of the multienzyme complex involving something known as the polyketide synthases. These enzymes are present in the bacteria Streptomyces rochei, and they produce a molecule called lankacidin, which has great antibiotic and anti-tumor potential. Pretty fascinating! To give you another perspective, the field of the multienzyme complex research is vast and could provide major exciting discoveries. For example, these complexes could be used for the conversion of CO2 – a greenhouse gas – into more valuable molecules while at the same time reducing the amount in the atmosphere. Go enzymes!

The chemistry of natural products was always a passion for me since the early stage of my career. The discovery of new chemical compounds is not only exciting from a chemical point of view (remember that I am a chemist!), but because it can lead to new sources of medicine. The possibility of finding out, for example, new antimicrobial or anticancer drugs and in turn having an invaluable impact on our society is what drives me out of my bed every morning.

I am Dorota Jakubczyk, a post-doctoral researcher working in Prof. Kira Weissman’s lab (IMoPA) at the University of Lorraine in Nancy (France).

Text by Fernanda Haffner

Illustration by Laurene Gattuso