male researcher holding a syringe-like instruments over a plate in a lab full of equipment

Will Tapioca Pearl-Like Solution Streamline Chemistry Research?

student in lab in background, soft drink bottles with pearls floating inside in foreground

Gummy balls, similar to these floating in a soft drink, might hold the key to finding a way to reuse enzymes using methods being tested by researcher John Kim, Chemistry '11 (Ryan Whitchurch photo).

By Amanda Holst, Public Affairs Assistant

Enzyme-catalyzed reactions are vital to the agricultural, pharmaceutical, and biotechnology industries, and are important in speeding up the rate of chemical reactions in organic chemistry.

However, Professor of Organic Chemistry Roy Okuda says there’s a two-fold problem with enzymes, which are protein molecules in plants or animals that cause specific reactions to happen.

“The current method of encasing enzymes is through a silica-based material, which has been a challenge for us to work with,” Okuda said. “Also, some of the more useful enzymes in chemistry today are expensive and you can use them only once.”

Four years ago, Huan Nguyen, Chemistry ’06, came up with a concept that could change all of that. Nguyen hypothesized that it might be possible to reuse enzymes extracted from marine seaweed and encased in porous balls similar to boba, the small tapioca balls in many Asian drinks.

Department of Chemistry researchers have been testing this simple but revolutionary approach ever since. John Kim, Chemistry ’11, has been able to reuse one enzyme six times. Testing whether the enzyme is active in the balls involves colored chemicals.

“If the color changes in the solution then we know that the enzyme is still trapped in the ball and it’s working,” Kim said. “That’s my way to check how many times it takes for the enzyme to die or leak out.”

The team is in the process of quantifying the experiment and testing other applications of the encased enzymes. Members include senior chemistry majors Daniel Pacheco, Quoc Dang and Thu Le, plus Nikhita Tulsi, Chemistry ’11.

The experiments are directly related to what Okuda covers in his lectures, and give graduate students research experience and lab hours. The team hopes to publish a paper soon, and present their work at the College of Science Research Day in early May.

“Hopefully we can create a system that is reusable so that we can use it on actual experiments and go beyond the research lab,” Kim said.