Scientists at Germany's University of Duisburg-Essen and the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) have found an enzyme which could be used for the biotechnological production of a precursor of MMA. This development could, in future, assist the manufacture of polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) or acrylic glass from natural raw materials such as sugars, alcohols or fatty acids. PMMA is manufactured by polymerising methyl methacrylate (MMA).
The newly enzyme discovered by Dr. Thore Rohwerder und Dr. Roland H. Müller, called 2-hydroxyisobutyryl-CoA mutase, makes it possible to turn a linear C4 carbon structure into a branched one, which is a precursor compound to MMA. The enzyme, integrated into metabolically appropriate microorganisms, can also transform sugars and other natural compounds into the products desired. Until now, the only way to produce this precursor - 2-hydroxyisobutyrate (2-HIBA) - was a purely chemical process based on petrochemical raw materials. The mutase presented here provides the solution: an enzyme which shifts a functional group from one position to another within a molecule.
Dr Thore Rohwerder had been nominated as one of three candidates for the European Evonik research award for his discovery, overseen by Dr Arend Oetker, president of the Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft (Association of Donors to German Science). The aim of the award is to encourage young researchers to risk taking the step from the laboratory into business. The topic of the 2008 Evonik research award was "White Biotechnology" (industrial biotechnology).