Research highlights


KnowVolution campaign of an aryl sulfotransferase increases activity toward cellobiose

Scheme for sulfation of sugar and glycosaminoglycans Bio VI Figure: ASTB was reengineered by KnowVolution toward a versatile tool for sulfation of sugar and glycosaminoglycans.

Islam, S., Laaf, D., Infanzón, B., Pelantová, H., Davari, M. D., Jakob, F., Křen, V., Elling, L., and Schwaneberg, U. Chemistry - A European Journal , 2018 . doi:10.1002/chem.201803729

Glycosaminoglycans are mostly sulfated polysaccharides playing significant roles in signal transduction, anti-coagulation, detoxification, and many more. Full chemical synthesis of glycosaminoglycans is still a very hard task due to many synthesis steps that affect the final yields. A suitable and sustainable alternative is represented by the in vitro synthesis of sulfated polysaccharides such as cellulose or chitin that mimic functionalities of glycosaminoglycans. Enzymatic sulfation of polysaccharide building blocks by sulfotransferases is synthetically attractive due to their ability to perform highly chemoselective sulfation in aqueous solution and at ambient temperature. The bacterial aryl sulfotransferase B - ASTB was reengineered to improve the sulfation activity toward the cellulose building block, cellobiose. A full KnowVolution campaign was performed. After screening 3,067 ASTB variants, Leu446 and Val579 were identified as beneficial positions to show positive effects on the ASTB activity.

Advancement of an aryl sulfotransferase toward a synthetically attractive sulfation agent for saccharides

Computational studies suggested that Leu446Pro conveys more flexibility to the substrate-binding site and Val579Lys is a distal substitution. Finally, the recombination of Leu446Pro and Val579Lys yielded a variant ASTB-M5 with up to 7.6-fold increased specific activity of ASTB toward cellobiose. A monosulfation of cellobiose was confirmed via mass spectrometry indicating a very selective sulfation. Furthermore, conversion was increased from 33.8% to 87.1% by the ASTB variant in the synthesis of the monosulfated glycosaminoglycan-building block, N-acetylglucosamine. Structure elucidation confirmed a partially regioselective monosulfation at C-3 and C-4 position, opposed to the chemically preferred C-6.

This work was a successful collaboration between Professor Schwaneberg and Professor Elling from RWTH Aachen and Professor Křen from Czech Academy of Sciences. Our work was financed by the projects FuPol, BioSulfa and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. For more detail, access this publication in our Research Highlights and Chemistry – A European Journal website.




Directed OmniChange evolution converts P450 BM3 into an alkyltrimethylammonium hydroxylase

Photo of Yu Ji Bio VI

Yu Ji, Alan Maurice Mertens, Christoph Gertler, Sallama Fekiri, Merve Keser, Daniel F. Sauer, Kilian E. C. Smith, and Ulrich Schwaneberg*, Chemistry - A European Journal, 2018, doi:10.1002/chem. 201803806


Reengineering of the P450 BM3 substrate specificity towards the hydroxylation of CTAB by OmniChange multi-site mutagenesis method

  Image of reaction educts and products Chemistry – A European Journal Directed OmniChange evolution converts P450 BM3 into an alkyltrimethylammonium hydroxylase.

Bolaform surfactants are a novel class of compounds with a wide range of industrial and technical applications. Bolaform surfactants are capable of forming of very small micelles and therefore are more effective than contemporary surfactants.

However, their production is expensive and involves the use of strong acids and large amounts of solvents. An alternative green synthesis route is the direct hydroxylation through monooxygenases as performed in nature.


In this study, the OmniChange multi-site mutagenesis method was applied for reengineering of the P450 BM3 substrate specificity towards the hydroxylation of CTAB by simultaneous mutagenesis of four relevant positions. Improved variants were identified in a two-step screening system. Then 10 promising P450 BM3 variants were analyzed by HPLC-MS/MS. Four P450 BM3 variants had significantly improved productivities and were kinetically characterized after purification. Interestingly all four variants were capable to di-hydroxylate CTAB and coupling efficiency up to 92.5% were obtained.

Notably, di-hydroxylation products of CTAB with bolaform surfactant properties have for the first time been produced. Bolaform surfactants are biodegradable and sustainable surfactants that offer excellent solubility properties and novel possibilities for drug delivery and/or compound formulations. Additionally, the two-step screening system proved to be efficient to boost coupling efficiency and can likely be used in many other P450 evolution campaigns to generate robust P450 catalysts. This work was funded by the China Scholarship Council, No. 201608080082.

Please find the link to this publication here.




Enzyme-compatible dynamic nanoreactors from electrostatically bridged like-charged surfactants and polyelectrolytes

Photo of M. Thiele and M.D.Davari

Martin J. Thiele, Mehdi D. Davari, Isabell Hofmann, Melanie König, Carlos G. Lopez, Ljubica Vojcic, Walter Richtering, Ulrich Schwaneberg and Larisa A. Tsarkova, Angewandte Chemie, 2018, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201805021


In the present publication, a discovery of nanoreactors from electrostatically bridged like-charged surfactants and polyelectrolytes was reported. Incorporation of a protease into such dynamic nanoreactors results in a synergistically enhanced cleaning performance due to the improved solubilization accessibility for the protease through the interaction with the nanoreactors.


An unanticipated mechanism of attractive electrostatic interactions of fully neutralized polyacrylic acid with like-charged surfactants is reported. Amphiphilic polymer-surfactant complexes with high interfacial activity and a solubilization capacity exceeding that of conventional micelles are formed by bridging with Ca2+ ions. Incorporation of a non-specific protease into such dynamic nanoreactors results in a synergistically enhanced cleaning performance due to improved solubilization of poorly water-soluble immobilized proteins. Competitive interfacial and intermolecular interactions on different time- and length-scales have been resolved using colorimetric analysis, dynamic tensiometry, light scattering, and molecular dynamic simulations. The discovered bridging association mechanism suggests reengineering of surfactant/polymer/enzyme formulations of modern detergents and opens new opportunities in advancing labile delivery systems.

  Schematic presentation of the nanoreactor´s mode of action Bio VI

Image: Scheme of an unanticipated mechanism of attractive electrostatic interactions of fully neutralized polyacrylic acid (PAA) with like-charged surfactant SLES. Amphiphilic polymer-surfactant complexes with high interfacial activity and solubilization capacity are formed by bridging with Ca2+ ions. Incorporation of a protease into such dynamic nanoreactors results in an enhanced cleaning performance because of the improved solubilization of poorly water-soluble immobilized proteins.


This research was partially funded by Henkel AG & Co. KGaA, Düsseldorf, Germany, as part of the Henkel Innovation Campus for Advanced Sustainable Technologies (HICAST). Simulations were performed with computing resources granted by JARA-HPC from RWTH Aachen University under projects RWTH0116 and JARA0169. L.A.T. acknowledges financial support by the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (RFBR) according to the research project No 18-53-76005.




A loop engineering strategy improves laccase lcc2 activity in ionic liquid and aqueous solution

Photo of Anne Wallraf Bio VI

A. M. Wallraf, H. Liu, L. Zhu, G. Khalfallaha, C. Simons, H. Alibiglou, M. D. Davari and U. Schwaneberg, Green Chemistry, 2018, DOI: 10.1039/C7GC03776G


Importance of a domain-connecting loop in laccase for increased activity in ionic liquid (IL) was identified.

Laccases are involved in lignin degradation. EMIM- and BMIM-based ionic liquids -IL- show excellent solubilization of wooden biomass but impede laccase activity. Protein engineering to improve the activity and resistance of laccases in ILs is promising for lignin valorization for the sustainable production of fuels and bulk high-value chemicals . We report for the first time an efficient semi-rational design with focus on a domain-connecting loop of a laccase lcc2 (loop L1) from Trametes versicolor.

The loop engineering strategy is based on a KnowVolution campaign and can be divided into three steps. Prediction of seven resistance increasing positions out of 37 amino acids in L1 - residues 284-320 - was performed by in silico SSM analysis with FoldX. These seven positions were saturated by SSM and four beneficial positions were subjected to simultaneous SSM using OmniChange. The OmniChange variants OM1 -A285P/A310R/A312E/A318G- and OM3 -A310D/A312P/A318R- showed a 3.9-fold -535.8 ± 36.9 U/mg- and 1.6-fold -216.8 ± 5.3 U/mg increased specific activity in aqueous solution -lcc2 WT, 138.9 ± 6.5 U/mg-, respectively, and up to 8.4-fold increased activity in 35% EMIM EtSO4 and aqueous solution when compared to lcc2 WT. Hydrogen bond pattern analysis revealed that both variants harbor an increased number of hydrogen bonds within the loop and between domains two and three which resulted in increased IL resistance.

  Flow scheme of the loop engineering experiment Royal Society of Chemistry

Entropy analysis indicated that the substitution of alanine at each selected amino acid position A285, A310, A312, and A318 reduced the flexibility of the loop L1. Conservational analysis with ConSurf server showed that the long domain-connecting loop L1 is a conserved feature in fungal laccases and suggests loop engineering as a useful strategy for increasing laccase activity in ILs and aqueous solutions. This work was funded by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG in the frame of the research cluster “ Tailor-Made Fuels from Biomass ” TMFB.




Cavity size engineering of a beta-barrel protein generates efficient biohybrid catalysts for olefin metathesis

Photo of Alexander Grimm and Daniel Sauer Bio VI

Grimm, A.R.*, Sauer, D.F.*, Davari, M.D., Zhu, L., Bocola, M., Kato, S., Onoda, A., Hayashi, T., Okuda, J., Schwaneberg, U.; ACS Catalysis, 2018, 8, pp 3358–3364, DOI: 10.1021/acscatal.7b03652. (*contributed equally)


The successful application of the presented cavity size engineering strategy to biohybrid catalysis can potentially be transferred to other beta-barrel protein scaffolds to generate cavity sizes that match the sterical demands of synthetic catalysts.

  biohybrid catalyst Bio VI

By incorporating a synthetic metal catalyst into a protein scaffold, a biohybrid catalyst is obtained. The protein scaffold can potentially alter the selectivity of the metal catalyst.and solubilizes it in water, while retaining their broad reaction scope. What’s new about this work is that until now, protein scaffolds for synthetic catalysts have mainly been engineered by exchanging individual amino acids. While a lot has been achieved using this conventional strategy, it is limited by the number of amino acids in the protein available for substitution. Here, cavity size engineering of a beta-barrel protein called nitrobindin was performed by duplicating multiple beta-strands to generate an expanded variant.


"Incorporation of a synthetic metal catalyst into a protein scaffold yielded a biohybrid catalyst that combines remarkable performance in aqueous media with the broad reaction scope of organometallic catalysts."

Alexander R. Grimm

It is the first time this has been done for biohybrid catalysis. By duplicating entire beta-strands, it was possible to covalently incorporate bulky catalysts and achieve excellent conversions in a whole series of olefin metathesis reactions – carbon-carbon double bond formation reactions. What’s exciting about this is that the design strategy that was used can potentially be transferred to other beta-barrel protein scaffolds to generate cavity sizes that match the sterical demands of synthetic catalysts. If high-throughput screening is applied to these new variants in the future, it should be possible to explore directed biohybrid catalyst evolution much more efficiently, which will likely further increase performance. This work was made possible through funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung.

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  Biohybrid Catalyst ACS Catalysis Figure 1 Comparison of conversion of cavity size engineered biohybrid catalyst and protein-free catalyst in ring opening metathesis polymerization.

A Whole Cell E. coli Display Platform for Artificial Metalloenzymes: Polyphenylacetylene Production with a Rhodium-Nitrobindin Metalloprotein

Photo of Alexander Grimm Bio VI

Grimm, A.R., Sauer, D.F., Polen, T., Zhu, L., Hayashi T., Okuda J., Schwaneberg, U. (2018). A whole cell E. coli display platform for artificial metalloenzymes: polyphenylacetylene production with a rhodium-nitrobindin metalloprotein. ACS Catal., 8, 2611-2613.


A Whole Cell E. coli Display Platform for Artificial Metalloenzymes

  Function principle of the whole cell catalyst Bio VI

In the latest publication of our colleageus from the Hybrid Catalysis & High Throughput Screening division, the first bacterial cell surface display-based whole cell biohybrid catalyst, termed ArMt bugs, was generated, characterized and applied to the stereoselective polymerization of phenylacetylene. Whole cell catalysis is very important for the cost-effective production of chemicals by biotechnological means. Despite the promising application of whole cells to biohybrid catalysis, researchers worldwide had to face the inactivation of their valuable synthetic metal catalysts within cells due to abundant thiols.


The authors therefore armed the surface of their Escherichia coli whole cells with rhodium-nitrobindin biohybrid catalysts via an esterase-based autotransporter to separate the catalysts from inhibiting cellular compounds. A high turnover number of 39,000,000 per cell in the polymerization of phenylacetylene and potential applications in directed evolution and high-throughput screening make the ArMt bugs an attractive platform for bioorthogonal reactions. This work was made possible through funding from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung.

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  Functional principle whole cell catalyst Bio VI



An enzymatic route to α-tocopherol synthons: Aromatic hydroxylation of pseudocumene and mesitylene with P450 BM3

A.Denning/A.Weingartner Bio VI

Dennig*, A., Weingartner*, A. M., Kardashliev, T., Müller, C. A., Tassano, E., Schürmann, M., Ruff, A. J., Schwaneberg, U. (2017). Chemistry - European Journal , first published online: October 9 2017, DOI: 10.1002/chem.201703647


P450 BM3 variants for the production of key phenolic building blocks for α-tocopherol synthesis

  Hydroxylation through P450BM3 Wiley VCH

Alternative enzymatic routes for vitamin E synthesis are important to match increasing demands. Here, we show the first direct aromatic hydroxylation of pseudocumene and mesitylene in water, with O2 and under mild reaction conditions to access five key phenolic α -tocopherol synthons including a direct route to trimethylhydroquinone, TMHQ. The P450 BM3 wild-type catalyzed a 94% selective aromatic hydroxylation of mesitylene, whereas pseudocumene was hydroxylated to a large extent ranging from 46-64% on benzylic positions. Site-saturation mutagenesis generated a new P450 BM3 mutant, named “variant M3”, with a 3 to 8fold increased coupling efficiency and 75 to 230-fold increased activity for pseudocumene and mesitylene conversion. Additional π - π interactions introduced by mutation A330F improved not only productivity and coupling efficiency, but also a 61 to 75% selectivity toward aromatic hydroxylation of pseudocumene. Detailed product pattern analysis, substrate docking and mechanistic considerations support the hypothesis that pseudocumene binds in an inverted orientation in the active site of P450 BM3 WT as compared to P450 BM3 variant M3 to allow this change in chemo-selectivity.

Under continuous NADPH-recycling the novel P450 BM3 variant M3 was able to produce the key tocopherol precursor TMHQ at 35% selectivity at concentrations up to 0.18 mg ml-1 directly from pseudocumene, which is a significant step toward more sustainable synthesis of vitamin E. The reaction can be performed in one-pot without the need for intermediate purification or additional catalysts. In case of mesitylene over-oxidation leads to dearomatization and formation of a valuable p-quinol synthon that can directly serve as educt for synthesis of TMHQ. This study provides an enzymatic route to key phenolic synthons for α-tocopherols and first catalytic and mechanistic insights into direct aromatic hydroxylation and dearomatization of trimethylbenzenes with O2.

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Inversion of cpADH5 Enantiopreference and Altered Chain Length Specificity for Methyl 3-Hydroxyalkanoates

Yunus Ensari & Gaurao Dhoke Bio VI

Yunus Ensari, Gaurao V. Dhoke, Mehdi D. Davari, Marco Bocola, Anna Joëlle Ruff, Ulrich Schwaneberg, Chemistry – A European Journal 2017, 23, 51, Issue, 12636-12645.


Enlargment of substrate binding pocket of cpADH5 led the conversion of medium chain methyl 3-hydroxyalkanoates and inverted enantiopreference for short chain methyl 3-hydroxyalkanoates.

  cpADH5 Chemistry – A European Journal Scheme 1: General overview of cpADH5 binding pocket engineering.

Selective oxidation of primary or secondary alcohols to carbonyl compounds, i.e. aldehydes and ketones, is a key reaction in organic synthesis and industry. Oxidation of alcohol to ketones can be performed efficiently by a great number of chemical oxidation methods. Selectivity, undesired by-product formation, substrate scope and conversion rates are still major challenges in oxidation of alcohols. Alcohol dehydrogenases are promising alternatives to metal catalysts and perform reversible oxidations of primary or secondary alcohols to their corresponding aldehydes or ketones.

We hope that the enzymatic oxidation of 3-hydroxy-FAMEs will open novel synthetic routes to attractive building block in the synthesis of pheromones and b-lactam antibiotics.

Gaurao V. Dhoke

Ketone-functionalized fatty acid derivatives are versatile compounds in organic chemistry, are used as intermediates and building blocks in the production of pharmaceutically active compounds, detergents, and so on.

This study reports the first reengineered Candida parapsilosis alcohol dehydrogenase - cpADH5 - for the efficient oxidation of methyl 3-hydroxyhexanoate and methyl 3-hydroxyoctanoate, which were not converted by the cpADH5 WT, to their corresponding ketones. In this study, we mutated and redesigned the substrate binding pocket of cpADH5 in order to extend its substrate scope toward medium-chain 3-hydroxy fatty acid methyl esters – FAME- which contain 6--12 carbon atoms in their alkyl chains. Furthermore, we describe the inverted enantiopreference for the oxidation of methyl 3-hydroxybutyrate which was observed for our engineered cpADH5 variant.

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Research highlight: Micro delivery service for fertilizers

Micro delivery service for fertilizers Wiley-VCH

Plants can absorb nutrients through their leaves as well as their roots. However, foliar fertilization over an extended period is difficult. In the journal Angewandte Chemie, German researchers have now introduced an efficient delivery system for micronutrients based on biohybrid microgels. Special peptides anchor the "microcontainers" onto the leaf surface while binding sites inside ensure gradual release of the "cargo".

Foliar fertilization is already commonly used in areas such as viniculture, when the leaves on the vines turn yellow due to a mineral deficiency. Yet, despite the use of detergents, adhesives, and humectants, controlled delivery of nutrients through foliar fertilization over several weeks is nearly impossible to achieve. Up to 80% of the nutrients are washed away, winding up in the soil and being converted into forms that the plant cannot use. In addition, they can be washed into bodies of water and cause environmental problems. An additional problem is that strong sunlight evaporates the water out of the applied fertilizer solution. This results in a high salt concentration that draws water out of the leaf and causes burn damage.

A team from DWI-Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials in Aachen, RWTH Aachen University, and the University of Bonn has now developed a foliar fertilization system based on biocompatible microgels that adhere selectively to leaves for a long period and slowly deliver nutrients in a controlled fashion. Microgels are tiny particles of cross-linked macromolecules that can bind water and other molecules, such as fertilizers very efficiently.

Led by Ulrich Schwaneberg, Andrij Pich and Felix Jakob, the researchers equipped the interiors of gel particles with binding sites modeled on the iron-binding proteins of bacteria. These ensure that the iron ions are released slowly. The microgels are loaded with an iron-containing solution at a pH of 3. When the pH rises to 7, the microgels shrink, releasing water and binding the iron.

The surface of the gel particles is equipped with anchor peptides from lactic acid bacteria. These bind securely to leaf surfaces to hinder rinsing away of the microgels. The water in the gel provides an aqueous microenvironment that allows the iron to diffuse into the leaves. Yellow leaves of iron-deficient cucumber plants rapidly turned green in spots where the new foliar fertilizer was applied.

By incorporating different binding sites, the microgel "containers" can be loaded with a multitude of other metal ions or agents. A controlled delivery of agents as required would minimize the applied quantities as well as the release of fertilizers and pesticides into the environment. Low production costs, high levels of loading, easy application, and adjustable adhesive properties should make broad industrial applications possible. The goal is to make self-regulating delivery systems for sustainable agriculture.

Richard A. Meurer et al, Biofunctional Microgel-Based Fertilizers for Controlled Foliar Delivery of Nutrients to Plants, Angewandte Chemie International Edition (2017). DOI: 10.1002/anie.201701620

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Generation of building blocks for synthesis of filter membranes

Generation of building blocks for synthesis of filter membranes Bio VI

The iron transporter FhuA - Ferric hydroxamate uptake protein component A is a channel protein produced by the bacterium Escherichia coli which was tailored for the generation of synthetic membranes using FhuA proteins and polymers. The FhuA protein forms a permeable channel with a uniform pore size from 2.5 to 3.0 nm and a barrel-like structure. Lysine residues were specifically located in a rim on the outer surface of the channel above the transmembrane region for the attachment of polymer chains. This design enabled the grafting of PNIPAAm polymer chains from the outer FhuA channel surface. In the future, the synthesized building blocks of the FhuA channel proteins and polymer chains will be used for generation of hybrid membranes for nanofiltration processes. These generated membranes can be applied in the downstream processing as molecular sieves for the separation of different components which is essential for synthesizing sweeteners, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

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In vitro flow cytometry-based screening platform for cellulase engineering

In vitro flow cytometry-based screening platform for cellulase engineering Bio VI

Screening technologies are of pivotal importance for tailoring biocatalysts in directed evolution, as millions of mutant enzyme variants could be generated in every trial. Hence, ultrahigh throughput screening techniques have been developed in order to still complete such trials in a reasonable amount of time. These techniques are well capable of analyzing up to 107 events per hour and thus can analyze the complete coverage of a generated protein sequence with high efficiency.

This technology becomes even more powerful if it is coupled with a cell-free enzyme expression technique. This expression method enables the experimentator to reduce diversity loss when transforming mutant libraries into expression hosts, to design enzymes of animal or human origin or even perform directed evolution of toxic enzymes.

The first ever combination of such a cell-free compartmentalization platform with a flow cytometry-based screening has been achieved in the InVitroFlow technology and successfully applied to directed evolution of cellulose enzymes.

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Screening through the PLICable promoter toolbox enhances protein production in Escherichia coli

Screening through the PLICable promoter toolbox enhances protein production in Escherichia coli Bio VI

Escherichia coli is a common host for recombinant protein production in which product titers are highly dependent on the employed expression system. Thereby, promoters are a key element to control gene expression levels. In this study, a novel PLICable promoter toolbox was developed. It enables the identification of the most suitable promoter out of ten IPTG-inducible promoters (T7, A3, lpp, tac, pac, Sp6, lac, npr, trc and syn) for high level protein production in a single cloning step and after a screening experiment.

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