Nature’s climate-saving machines

Global warming is caused by increasing
levels of carbon dioxide or CO2 in our atmosphere. A few people may disagree but the facts don’t lie. This greenhouse gas is increasing global temperatures. Other gases like the pollutant carbon monoxide or CO contribute to the formation of smog that is plaguing cities around the world. CO and CO2 are also byproducts of the fossil fuels we depend on. This is a big problem. But what if I told you that nature has already developed the machinery we need to solve it I’m talking about enzymes. Enzymes are tiny little biological machines. All forms of life have them and they do everything for us: they chop up our food, make our DNA turn light signals into visual images, everything. The really cool thing about enzymes is that they can do very difficult chemical reactions at normal temperatures and pressures In the Ribby lab at UC Irvine I study an enzyme called nitrogenase, which is found in some types of bacteria. Nitrogenase can take CO and CO2 out of the atmosphere and turn them into propane and butane which humans use regularly as fuels If scientists wanted to do the same thing without the enzyme nitrogenase they would need high temperatures, extreme pressures, and expensive rare metals. My research focuses on understanding how this enzyme does these difficult chemical reactions at room temperature and normal pressures. Like the machines we are used to working with a nitrogenous needs many parts to function. In my research I take nitrogenous apart and put the pieces back together in different ways to better understand how it works. One of its important parts is a big group or cluster of metal atoms. We know that these metal clusters power the enzyme but my research shows that they play an even bigger role than we originally thought. By further understanding which parts are the most important to nitrogenase’s activity I can start to increase its fuel production. Right now the speed at which nitrogenase does these conversions is pretty slow but we can learn a lot by understanding how this enzyme works. Once we fully understand it we can start to improve how we use it. We might even be able to use nitrogenase to make other fuel products like gasoline. This system can serve as a way to recycle and reuse CO and CO2. And if we can use these little tiny biological machines to pull enough gases out of the atmosphere we can reverse the devastating impacts of global climate change. Thank you.

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