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Biological Model for Industrial Fertilizer

Team of researchers identifies the core of the FeMo Cofactor

Freiburg, Nov 22, 2011

Biological Model for Industrial Fertilizer

At the center of the enzyme nitrogenase exists the FeMo Cofactor. The atom in this metal cluster has been identified as carbon

Nitrogen is a building block of life. In order to grow, plants depend on molecular nitrogen N2, which is limited in availability. This poses a challenge for the food and agriculture industry. This is why the Haber-Bosch process of ammonia synthesis is used to artificially produce nitrate fertilizer. But this process requires roughly 1 percent of the entire world's energy for the current amount of production. Nature offers a biological solution to this problem. Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle, from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Freiburg and a member of the BIOSS Cluster of Excellence, and a team of researchers were able to find an important piece of this solution. Their findings have now been published in the current issue of Science magazine.

The bacterial enzyme nitrogenase is able to catalyze the chemical reaction of N2 to ammonia and is therefore the natural version of the Haber-Bosch process. At the centre of the nitrogenase is a metal cluster, FeMoco (FeMo cofactor), where the chemical activation of the substrate N2 takes place. Until now, it was not understood exactly how this activation occurs and what chemical element can be ascribed to the atom in the metal cluster. This is why scientists have been unable to develop an efficient catalyst for the industrial production of nitrogen.

Together with research groups from the Department of Physical Chemistry at the University of Freiburg, the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, USA, the Max Planck Institute for Bioanorganic Chemistry in Mühlheim an der Ruhr and the University of California in Irvine, USA, the researchers from the University of Freiburg were able to show that carbon is the central atom in the metal cluster. This discovery is vital for understanding the biogenesis and functionality of the metal cluster. By determining that the core of the FeMoco consists of carbon, science has come a step closer to reconstructing the enzyme and saving energy in the production of nitrate fertilizer.

Thomas Spatzal, Müge Aksoyoglu, Limei Zhang, Susana L.A. Andrade, Erik Schleicher, Stefan Weber, Douglas C. Rees, Oliver Einsle (2011) Evidence for Interstitial Carbon in Nitrogenase FeMo Cofactor. Science (2011) 334: 940

German Press Release


Prof. Dr. Oliver Einsle
Institut für Organische Chemie und Biochemie
Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg
Tel.: +49 (0) 761 203-6058