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Chemistry's Bruner in key antibiotic advance

Asst. Prof. Steve Bruner (Chemistry) and his team of researchers have taken a key step toward understanding how vancomycin, dubbed "the antibiotic of last resort," is produced in nature.

The research comes as doctors are running out of antibiotics to treat increasingly potent bacterial infections. Understanding the chemistry behind the existing arsenal of antibiotics like vancomycin, which is used to treat aggressive, drug resistant staph infections, could allow drugmakers to synthesize them in laboratories. It could also lead researchers to develop new kinds of antibiotic weapons.

In a letter published in a recent issue of Nature magazine, Bruner's team provided the first picture of how an enzyme called DpgC interacts with oxygen gas as part of the process of creating vancomycin. Oxygen is used in all processes of cellular biology, including energy production and primary metabolism. The vast majority of oxygen-using enzymes exploit metals or vitamin-like substances called cofactors to incorporate oxygen into organic molecules.

DpgC, however, is unique in that it catalyzes complex oxidation chemistry without the help of any metal or cofactor. In their letter to Nature, Bruner and his team reported the first atomic picture of DpgC giving chemists around the world an unprecedented amount of detail regarding the mechanism of the enzyme and the general mechanism of oxygen activation.

"We need to know how these enzymes work so that the people developing new analogs know what changes can be made," Bruner said. "We're still a little far away from being able to synthesize these drugs in a lab, but this is one of the early steps toward that goal and one of the more complicated ones."

The Chemistry Department called the accomplishment a "huge coup" both for Bruner and the sciences at BC, noting it was rare for a junior faculty member to be published in the prestigious journal Nature.


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