Researchers based in Thailand have successfully formulated a bioinspired method to detect and detoxify the chemicals used in various industrial and agricultural processes in a single step. The research, reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, describes how a combination of two natural enzymatic reactions can convert harmful chlorophenols and nitrophenols into luciferin, the substance responsible for the characteristic glow of fireflies. Oxygenated benzene or phenol molecules are present in the chemical structure of many organic substances, like lignin, dyes, pharmaceuticals, tar, and herbicides. Phenol-derived compounds are used in plastics as plasticizers; however, many of the chemicals are not harmful such as, herbicides, pesticides, or flame retardants that are present in fields or the workplace. Phenolic compounds are typically detected by using mechanisms like mass spectrometry.
Pimchai Chaiyen, Biochemist, Vidyasirimedhi Institute of Science and Technology, Thailand along with colleagues, have now developed a more pragmatic approach. They combined biodetoxification with chemical and biochemical conversion schemes to detect and eliminate contaminants. To degrade and detoxify the chemicals, Chaiyen and her team employed pure detoxification in combination with a process to convert the benzoquinone product into luciferin. The researchers explain that the developed ‘chemoenzymatic cascade’ offers additional value, as it provides biodetection technology for nitrophenols and halogenated phenols. They add that the process causes benzoquinone, the product from the first enzymatic conversion step, to turn into luciferin in the second step in the same reaction vessel.
To successfully convert benzoquinone into luciferin, the researchers introduced the natural compound cysteine into the mixture. They also added a third step in the reaction sequence and found luciferin after they observed the glowing reaction caused by an enzyme called luciferase, present in fireflies. The researchers were also able to prove that the detoxification was robust and can undertake the quantitative conversion of harmful phenols into luciferin. Another benefit of the process is the production of luciferin, which is a precious compound in the field of biomedicine.