Two Yale researchers, Alanna Schepartz, Ph.D., the Milton Harris ’29 Ph.D. Professor of Chemistry and professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and Scott J. Miller, Ph.D., department chair and the Irénée du Pont Professor of Chemistry, have received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation to support a three-year study to create artificial enzymes using beta-peptide bundles. These miniature synthetic proteins were discovered in the Schepartz laboratory in 2007. The enzyme project has far-reaching implications in the field of synthetic chemistry as well as in biomimetics and synthetic biology.

The construction of an artificial enzyme has long been considered a “Holy Grail” of modern chemistry. Natural enzymes are known to accelerate chemical reactions dramatically. If this behavior can be mimicked to drive desirable reactions in research or industry, scientists will have unprecedented control over the creation of new and useful materials. Some researchers believe that artificial enzymes could be used to target specific cellular functions or applications and could work with greater efficiency than their natural counterparts.

Schepartz and Miller are focusing on beta-peptide bundles in part because of their novelty; these tiny protein-like structures offer unique advantages for catalyst development. In addition, beta-peptide bundles are stable, relatively predictable in their behavior, and well suited to systematic study in the laboratory.