Explosive-contaminated land poses a hazard both to the environment and to human health. Microbial enzymes, either in their native or heterologous hosts, are a powerful and low-cost tool for eliminating this environmental hazard. As many explosives have only been present in the environment for 10 years, and with similar molecules not known in Nature, the origin of enzymes specialized for the breakdown of explosives is of particular interest. Screening of environmental isolates resulted in the discovery of flavoproteins capable of denitrating the explosives pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) and glycerol trinitrate. These nitrate ester reductases are related in sequence and structure to Old Yellow Enzyme from Saccharomyces carlsbergenisis. All the members of this family have α/ϐ barrel structures and FMN as a prosthetic group, and reduce various electrophilic substrates. The nitrate ester reductases are, however, unusual in that they display activity towards the highly recalcitrant, aromatic explosive 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene, via a reductive pathway resulting in nitrogen liberation. We have embarked on a detailed study of the structure and mechanism of PETN reductase from a strain of Enterobacter cloacae. Work is focused currently on relating structure and function within this growing family of enzymes, with a view to engineering novel enzymes exhibiting useful characteristics.

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