Cancer research yields unexpected discovery: green nylon

The world manufactures over 5 million tons of nylon, which depends on fossil fuels. Duke researchers studying tumors stumbled on a way to produce nylon from sugar.
Written by Janet Fang, Contributor

In a happy accident, cancer researchers discovered a molecule necessary for cheaper and greener ways to manufacture nylon.

The production of nylon -- found everywhere from auto parts to women’s stockings -- depends on a chemical called adipic acid. It’s one of the most widely used chemicals in the world, but it’s produced from fossil fuel and a lot of pollution results from its refinement process. Over 5 million tons of nylon are produced a year.

Meanwhile, a team led by Hai Yan Duke University Medical Center were studying genetic changes that cause healthy tissues to grow into tumors.

They delved into the adipic acid problem based on similarities between cancer research techniques and biochemical engineering. Cancers are notorious for having rogue enzymes, Chemistry World explains, possessing mutations and catalyzing alternative reactions to their healthy, wild type counterparts.

Similarly, enzymes are used to convert organic matter into synthetic materials such as adipic acid. Duke News explains:

One of the most promising approaches being studied today for environmentally friendly adipic acid production uses a series of enzymes as an assembly line to convert cheap sugars into adipic acid. However, one critical enzyme in the series, called a 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase, has never been produced, leaving a missing link in the assembly line.

A few years ago, those Duke researchers identified a genetic mutation in brain tumors that alters the function of a similar enzyme.

Turns out, the genetic mutation seen in cancer might trigger a similar functional change to a closely related enzyme found in yeast and bacteria, which would create the elusive 2-hydroxyadipate dehydrogenase necessary to produce ‘green’ adipic acid from sugar.

It’s hard to compete with carbon because it’s cheap, Los Angeles Times explains. But adipic acid is a “big-scale chemical,” and making it from microbes rather than petroleum products would be great.

The work was published in Nature Chemical Biology this week.

[Via Los Angeles Times, Duke News]

Image: salvaged stockings to become parachutes / Wikimedia

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards