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Enzyme-like functionalised polymers for industrial catalysis

Inspired by nature, scientists have synthesised enzyme-like systems from functionalised polymers. The supramolecular architectures with active sites tucked in water-hating hydrophobic cavities will support numerous industrially relevant reactions in water-based solvents.
Enzyme-like functionalised polymers for industrial catalysis
Catalysts are substances that speed the rate of a reaction by decreasing the energy required for the reaction to occur. Industrial reactions rely heavily on catalysts. By speeding the rate of reaction, catalysts increase yield. Due to their specificity, they can also produce desired compounds with very high purity, reducing the number of subsequent processing steps. In addition, catalytic cascade reactions resembling nature's way of producing molecules have become star players in organic 'green' chemistry to synthesise a variety of natural products.

Nature often provides inspiration to scientists and engineers and nature's catalysts are no exception. Enzymes are proteins, long chains of sub-units (amino acids) that fold in complex ways to create 3D structures imparting function. Building on the resemblance of proteins to block co-polymers, scientists working on the EU-funded project 'Single chain polymer nanoparticles' (SCPNANOPART) created synthetic protein-like nanoparticles (NPs). To accomplish the task, co-polymers (polymers made of more than one sub-unit or monomer) were functionalised with supramolecular moieties that promote folding when triggered.

Among the various architectures created and studied in order to develop the procedure for block co-polymer synthesis with functionalisation, the team synthesised NPs with catalytically active sites located in hydrophobic interiors for catalysis in aqueous media.

Knowledge gained was exploited in studies directed at two reaction types of industrial importance. The aldol condensation reaction is key to organic synthetic chemistry as it forms carbon–carbon bonds. Boronic acid derivatives catalyse a number of industrially important reactions so scientists also investigated the functionalisation of polymers with phenylboronic acid for catalysis in water or organic solvents.

Functionalised polymers for the aldol reaction demonstrated remarkable activity in water, similar to that of natural enzymes. A novel method to control catalyst active site positioning facilitated impressive selectivity as well. Phenylboronic acid-functionalised polymers showed high activity in two different reactions (direct amidation in an organic solvent and Diels–Alder reactions in water).

SCPNANOPART successfully synthesised novel compartmentalised catalytic systems with the active site located in the hydrophobic interior for reactions in aqueous media. These highly active and specific NP enzyme-like structures should have major impact on synthetic chemistry, in particular for organic compounds including cascade reactions.

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