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Structural View of Biology >> Enzymes >> Hydrolases - Breaking Chemical Bonds with Water

Structural View of Biology

Enzymes are Nature's chemists, performing all of the chemical transformations needed for life. Enzymes catalyze chemical reactions by bringing together all of the necessary chemical tools in the proper place. They typically have an "active site" that captures the chemicals that will be modified, holding them in the perfect orientation to perform the chemical change. Researchers have separated the many types of enzymes into a few functional classes, based on the reactions that they perform. Click on any of the sub-categories below to explore a few examples of each enzyme class. You can also explore many other enzymes in the other functional categories in "Structural View of Biology."

Hydrolases break molecules into two pieces by using a molecule of water, which is also broken in half during the reaction. This is a particularly useful reaction in cells because proteins, carbohydrates and nucleic acids are built using the opposite reaction, where two molecules are brought together with the removal of water. Hydrolases reverse this reaction, and are often used to destroy or digest biological molecules.

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  • AAA+ Proteases

    AAA+ Proteases

    How would you make a protein cutting machine that would be safe to use inside a cell? Digestive proteases like trypsin and pepsin are small and efficient–they diffuse up to proteins and start cutting. This would never work inside a cell. The cell needs to have more control, so that only obsolete or damaged proteins are destroyed. The AAA+ proteases are one solution to this problem. They use two tricks to ensure that only certain proteins are destroyed. First, they hide the protein destruction machinery inside a closed container, and second, they use a special protein pump to feed proteins into this destruction chamber.

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  • Acetylcholinesterase


    Every time you move a muscle and every time you think a thought, your nerve cells are hard at work. They are processing information: receiving signals, deciding what to do with them, and dispatching new messages off to their neighbors. Some nerve cells communicate directly with muscle cells, sending them the signal to contract. Other nerve cells are involved solely in the bureaucracy of information, spending their lives communicating only with other nerve cells. But unlike our human bureaucracies, this processing of information must be fast in order to keep up with the ever-changing demands of life.

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    Discussed Structures
  • Alpha-amylase


    Glucose is a major source of energy in your body, but unfortunately, free glucose is relatively rare in our typical diet. Instead, glucose is locked up in many larger forms, including lactose and sucrose, where two small sugars are connected together, and long chains of glucose like starches and glycogen. One of the major jobs of digestion is to break these chains into their individual glucose units, which are then delivered by the blood to hungry cells throughout your body.

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    Discussed Structures
  • Caspases


    Billions of cells in your body will die in the next hour. This is entirely normal--the human body continually renews itself, removing obsolete or damaged cells and replacing them with healthy new ones. However, your body must do this carefully. If cells are damaged, like when you cut yourself, they may swell and burst, contaminating the surrounding area. The body responds harshly to this type of cell death, inflaming the area by rushing in blood cells to clean up the mess. To avoid this messy problem, your cells are boobytrapped with a method to die cleanly and quickly on demand. When given the signal, the cell will disassemble its own internal structure and fragment itself into small, tidy pieces that are readily consumed by neighboring cells. This process of controlled, antiseptic death is called apoptosis.

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  • Exosomes


    Our genetic information is stored safely inside the nucleus of each cell. However, most of the action in a typical cell occurs outside the nucleus: proteins are built in the cytoplasm, energy is produced in the mitochondria, and interactions with the environment occur at the cell surface. So, the nucleus needs a way to communicate with the rest of the cell. RNA molecules perform this job. They are the messengers that deliver genetic information from the nucleus to places where it is needed for synthesis and control.

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  • Lysozyme


    Lysozyme protects us from the ever-present danger of bacterial infection. It is a small enzyme that attacks the protective cell walls of bacteria. Bacteria build a tough skin of carbohydrate chains, interlocked by short peptide strands, that braces their delicate membrane against the cell's high osmotic pressure. Lysozyme breaks these carbohydrate chains, destroying the structural integrity of the cell wall. The bacteria burst under their own internal pressure.

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  • PDB Pioneers

    PDB Pioneers

    Structural biology was born in 1958 with John Kendrew's atomic structure of myoglobin, and in the following decade, the field grew rapidly. By the early 1970's, there were a dozen atomic structures of proteins, and researchers were discovering that they had a goldmine of information.

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  • Pepsin


    During the holiday season, we often place greater demands on our digestive enzymes than at other times of the year. Our digestive system contains a host of tough, stable enzymes designed to seek out those rich holiday treats and break them into small pieces. Pepsin is the first in a series of enzymes that digest proteins. In the stomach, protein chains bind in the deep active site groove of pepsin, seen in the upper illustration (from PDB entry 5pep), and are broken into smaller pieces. Then, a variety of proteases and peptidases in the intestine finish the job. The small fragments--amino acids and dipeptides--are then absorbed by cells for use as metabolic fuel or construction of new proteins.

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    Discussed Structures
  • Rhomboid Protease GlpG

    Rhomboid Protease GlpG

    Proteases, enzymes that cut protein chains, come in many shapes and sizes. The most familiar proteases, like trypsin and pepsin, are machines of destruction used to digest proteins in our diet. However, most of the proteases in our cells are used in a more delicate task. They regulate the action of other proteins by making specific cuts in their protein targets.

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  • Ribonuclease A

    Ribonuclease A

    Ribonuclease A is the enzyme that digests RNA in our food. Because is it small, stable, and easily purified, ribonuclease has been an important enzyme in biochemical research. It was used by Christian Anfinsen to prove that the sequence of amino acids determines the structure of a folded protein and it was used by Stanford Moore and William Stein to show that a specific arrangement of amino acids is used in the catalytic center of enzymes. Ribonuclease A was also the first enzyme synthesized by R. Bruce Merrifield, showing that biological molecules are simply chemical entities that may be constructed artificially. All of these central concepts, discovered with the help of ribonuclease, were awarded Nobel Prizes.

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  • Thrombin


    Oxygen and nutrients are delivered throughout our bodies through the watery transport system of the blood. Using a liquid delivery method poses two challenges. First, it leaves the entire body open to infection, since bacteria and viruses will be quickly distributed everywhere that the blood goes. The immune system, with antibodies as the first line of defense, fights this danger. Second, there is the constant danger of damage to the blood circulatory system. Blood is pumped throughout the body under pressure, and any small leak could lead to a rapid emptying of the entire system. Fortunately, the blood carries an emergency repair system: the blood clotting system. When we are cut or wounded, our blood builds a temporary dam to block the damage, giving the surrounding tissues time to build a more permanent repair.

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  • Trypsin


    Proteins are tough, so we use an arsenal of enzymes to digest them into their component amino acids. Digestion of proteins begins in the stomach, where hydrochloric acid unfolds proteins and the enzyme pepsin begins a rough disassembly. The real work then starts in the intestines. The pancreas adds a collection of protein-cutting enzymes, with trypsin playing the central role, that chop the protein chains into pieces just a few amino acids long. Then, enzymes on the surfaces of intestinal cells and inside the cells chop them into amino acids, ready for use throughout the body.

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  • beta-Secretase


    Many of our proteins need to be shaped, folded and trimmed after they are made, to coax them into their proper functional form. A variety of specialized chaperones and proteases perform these tasks. Occasionally, however, these chaperones and proteases make mistakes that can have life-threatening consequences.

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