Scientists adapt enzyme to block sarin

A team of scientists published research this month about an artificial protein created from a soil bacterium that is as much as 15,000 times more effective in detoxifying chemical agents than its natural counterpart.

The scientists from the U.S. Army and Texas A&M University began with the phosphotriesterase protein, an enzyme that can detoxify chemical warfare agents like sarin and some pesticides. The researchers used the process of directed evolution to bolster the protein's detoxification properties, reports.

Researchers David Barondeau, Frank Raushel and their colleagues explained the process in their research article, entitled "Enzymes for the Homeland Defense: Optimizing Phosphotriesterase for the Hydrolysis of Organophosphate Nerve Agents," which was published in the journal Biochemistry.

Directed evolution imitates natural selection by making small random changes in a substance and testing the resultant mutant substances. The researchers used the process to isolate mutated enzymes that were more effective at breaking down nerve agents. One of the resulting enzymes was 15,000 more effective at breaking down chemical agents like sarin than the original enzyme, reports.

Sarin is a human-made chemical warfare agent that was originally used as a pesticide in Germany in 1938. Sarin was used in two terrorist attacks in Japan in 1994 and 1995 and may have been used during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s.