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Researchers make important discovery about one of the key pigments of life

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5 October 2011

BBSRC-funded researchers at the University of Kent and the University of Oxford have discovered a new way in which nature makes haem - the component that gives blood its colour and allows red blood cells to carry oxygen around the body.

Until now it was not known that haem - one of the key pigments of life - can be made from a related molecule called siroheam by some very unusual and unexpected chemical processes - a discovery that principal investigator Professor Martin Warren has described as being similar in importance and scale to the 'transformation of the first electronic calculators into the modern mobile phone'.

Haem performs many roles in the biology of a very large number of organisms. It is perhaps more well-known for the role it performs when it is found attached to the large protein globin - together called haemoglobin. Molecules attached to proteins in such a way that allows them to perform a role are known as 'prosthetic groups'. Both the protein and the prosthetic group have to be synthesised from basic building blocks and then stuck together - all via various chemical processes in human cells.

The team at Kent and Oxford also worked with colleagues at Portugal's Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica (ITQB) to study the process by which haem is synthesised in Archaea (a unique type of single-celled organism). They showed at a molecular level that, within Archea, siroheam is hijacked and brought into the chemical process that synthesises heam. In molecular and cellular biochemistry this is a very rare example where one prosthetic group is cannibalised for the synthesis of another.

The project involved studying a number of very unusual biochemical reactions in glove-boxes that are completely devoid of oxygen. It was only under these unique conditions that the researchers were able to observe the reactions taking place.

Professor Warren, who is Head of the School of Biosciences at Kent, said 'This is a very important piece of basic science that offers an explanation as to how biochemical pathways evolve and become more complex. Moreover, we have learnt some new concepts about how chemistry can be used to change the shape and the character of larger molecules, which can then be applied for the development of new compounds; for instance, in the pharmaceutical industry or the production of biofuels. In this respect our research contributes to the field of synthetic biology.'


Notes to editors

'Molecular hijacking of siroheam for the synthesis of haem and d1 haem' (Shilpa Bali, Andrew D. Lawrence, Susana A. Lobo, Lígia M. Saraiva, Bernard T. Golding, David J. Palmer, Mark J. Howard, Stuart J. Ferguson and Martin J. Warren) was published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), the official journal of the United States National Academy of Sciences, on 03 October.

About University of Kent

The University of Kent was established at Canterbury in 1965 and has now become known as the UK's European university, with students in Brussels and Paris as well as at its other Kent campuses at Medway and Tonbridge. It has nearly 20,000 students, of which around 17,000 are undergraduates and approaching 3,000 are postgraduates.

The University has consistently been rated by its own students as one of the best universities in the UK in the National Student Survey for the quality of its teaching and academic provision. The 2012 Guardian University Guide sees Kent ranked 23rd, with one third of its subjects in the top 12 nationally for teaching.

In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the University was placed 24th out of 159 participating institutions in the UK for its world-leading research, while 97% of its academic staff work in schools or centres where the research is rated as either internationally or nationally excellent.

In 2008, the University was awarded The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for the work of its Kent Law Clinic.

The University's strong European impact is reinforced by long-standing partnerships with more than 100 universities in mainland Europe and it is the only UK university to have specialist postgraduate centres in Brussels and Paris. The University has also developed relationships with many leading overseas universities outside Europe and in 2010 launched a new initiative to offer more scholarships to students from Hong Kong and China.

It is a major educational, economic and cultural force in Canterbury, Medway and throughout the rest of Kent, supporting innovation and enterprise across the region. During 2010/2011 the University expects to contribute at least £200m to the economy of the Canterbury district alone.

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BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £445M, we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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External contact

Press Office, University of Kent

tel: 01227 823100 or 823581