We’re developing enzymes that can make complex molecules, such as morphine, more efficiently, as well as making molecules the world has never seen before.

The challenge

Reproducing complex natural products

Nature uses biochemical pathways to make molecules with incredible complexity. In these pathways, simple materials undergo a series of chemical reactions catalysed by proteins to generate complex final products.

One of these products is morphine, a widely use pain-relieving drug. The morphine molecule is extremely complex and cannot be made in a laboratory. The only way to obtain morphine is by extraction from opium poppies. If we could understand the process nature uses to make morphine, we could reproduce the process in a laboratory and manufacture it in a more cost-effective manner.

Our response

Simplifying the problem

One way to improve our understanding of how nature is able to make these complex molecules is to study the individual steps.

We’re investigating some of the steps involved in the morphine biochemical pathway, and in related pathways. We’re looking at the proteins that carry out each reaction and analysing the molecules that feed in and out of each step in the pathway.

As well as aiming to reproduce and improve these pathways, we’re also investigating possible applications for molecules outside of the pathway.

The results

New applications for a morphine enzyme

We studied an enzyme in the morphine pathway that makes a molecule called norcoclaurine, a compound with its own potential as a pharmaceutical or dietary supplement. We’re working to improve this protein and make this step in the pathway more efficient.

We’ve also found that, outside of the plant it’s found in natively, the enzyme can make a host of new molecules, similar to norcoclaurine but each with their own unique potential.

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