The ever-expanding limits of enzyme catalysis and biodegradation: Polyaromatic, polychlorinated, polyfluorinated, and polymeric compounds

Lawrence P. Wackett, Serina L. Robinson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Biodegradation is simply the metabolism of anthropogenic, or otherwise unwanted, chemicals in our environment, typically by microorganisms. The metabolism of compounds commonly found in living things is limited to several thousand metabolites whereas ∼100 million chemical substances have been devised by chemical synthesis, and ∼100 000 are used commercially. Since most of those compounds are not natively found in living things, and some are toxic or carcinogenic, the question arises as to whether there is some organism somewhere with the enzymes that can biodegrade them. Repeatedly, anthropogenic chemicals have been denoted 'non-biodegradable,' only to find they are reactive with one or more enzyme(s). Enzyme reactivity has been organized into categories of functional group transformations. The discovery of new functional group transformations has continually expanded our knowledge of enzymes and biodegradation. This expansion of new-chemical biodegradation is driven by the evolution and spread of newly evolved enzymes. This review describes the biodegradation of widespread commercial chemicals with a focus on four classes: polyaromatic, polychlorinated, polyfluorinated, and polymeric compounds. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons include some of the most carcinogenic compounds known. Polychlorinated compounds include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and many pesticides of the twentieth century. Polyfluorinated compounds are a major focus of bioremediation efforts today. Polymers are clogging landfills, killing aquatic species in the oceans and increasingly found in our bodies. All of these classes of compounds, each thought at one time to be non-biodegradable, have been shown to react with natural enzymes. The known limits of enzyme catalysis, and hence biodegradation, are continuing to expand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2875-2891
Number of pages17
JournalBiochemical Journal
Issue number15
StatePublished - Aug 14 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work has been supported by funding from the MnDRIVE Initiative at the University of Minnesota and by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural and Food Research Initiative Competitive Program, Ecosystem Services and Agro-Ecosystem Management, grant no. 2019-67019-29403. S.L.R. was supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship (grant no. 00039202).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 The Author(s). This is an open access article published by Portland Press Limited on behalf of the Biochemical Society and distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND).

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review


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