Billions of years of evolution have yielded today's complex metabolic networks driven by efficient and highly specialized enzymes. In contrast, the metabolism of the earliest cellular life forms was likely much simpler with only a few enzymes of comparatively low activity. It has been speculated that these early enzymes had low specificities and in turn were able to perform multiple functions. In this issue of Molecular Microbiology, Ferla et al. describe examples of enzymes that catalyze chemically distinct reactions while using the same active site. Most importantly, the authors demonstrated that the comparatively weak activities of these multifunctional enzymes are each physiologically relevant. These findings contrast with simply promiscuous enzyme activities, which have been described numerous times but are not physiologically relevant. Ferla et al. elegantly combined initial bioinformatics searches for enzyme candidates with sound kinetic measurements, evolutionary considerations and even structural discussions. The phenomenon of multifunctionality appears to be a mechanism for bacteria with reduced genomes to compensate for their lack of certain enzymes. In the broader context of evolution, these organisms could be considered living model systems to study features of long-extinct early cellular life.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was funded in part by grants from the US National Institutes of Health (GM108703) and the Simons Foundation (340762).