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E4 NERC Discovery of novel metalloenzymes from heavy metal contaminated sites

School of Chemistry

About the Project

Project background:

The natural world has adapted and evolved to survive in polluted environments, for example bacteria have recently evolved that use plastic as a carbon source. Metal contaminated environments are a concern for a number of different reasons:
1. Metals such as Cd, Pb, Hg are poisonous and accumulate in food sources.
2. Precious metals (e.g. Pt, Pd, Rh, Au) are rare and expensive and thus their retrieval from waste streams would be economically desirable.

Studies have shown that plants and bacteria can adapt to survive in metal contaminated environments by hyperaccumulation and/or the secretion of nanoparticles. These bacteria can be repurposed for the bioremediation of metals. In some cases enzymes containing heavy metals have been identified e.g. CDCA1, a Cd-containing carbonic anhydrase, and XoXF1, a La-dependant methanol dehydrogenase. These enzymes have different sequences and metal-binding properties to previously identified proteins suggesting a wealth of biodiversity to be discovered. This project will look to see if microorganisms can evolved to incorporate heavy metals, such as Au, Pd etc, into enzymes with novel catalytic activities.

Key research Questions:
Have microorganisms evolved that utilise precious metals within their biosynthetic pathways?
How are these metals transported into the organism?
Do they possess novel metal binding motifs?
Are these completely novel classes of metalloenzymes?

Further information about the project and the E4 DTP can be found

The project would suit an adventurous student with a Biochemistry or related degree. Experience in bioinformatics and data set analysis, and/or protein expression and analytical techniques such as HPLC, GC and mass spectrometry, would be highly desirable. In addition, an understanding of metal coordination/metalloproteins would be beneficial.

Funding Notes

A 3.5 year PhD studentship funded through the NERC Edinburgh Earth, Ecology and Environment (E4) Doctoral Training Partnership (


1. A. Cvetkovic et al. Microbial metalloproteomes are largely uncharacterised, Nature, 2010, 466, 779.
2. Nakagawa, T et al. A Catalytic Role of XoxF1 as La3+-Dependent Methanol Dehydrogenase in Methylobacterium extroquens Strain AM1, PLoS ONE, 2012, 7, e50480.
3. Lane, T. et al. A cadmium enzyme from a marine diatom, Nature, 2005, 435, 370.

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