Bench & Beyond: Adolph Strecker and Amino Acid Synthesis

Between the amino acid and the enzyme is a big stretch in size and complexity, and if seen from the point of view of Adolph Strecker, there is a catalyst at either end. The catalyst at the enzyme end is the enzyme itself. The catalyst at the amino acid end is the potassium cyanide that is part of Strecker’s own discovery: a method for synthesizing amino acids. At the small end of the scale are amino acids. They are described by Karl Lintner in this magazine in these words:

Amino acids are the building blocks of peptides and proteins. Their molecules have one thing in common: a carbon backbone with at least one amino (-NH2) and at least one carboxyl (-COOH) group attached. This confers specific electrochemical or charge-related behavior to them, as well as the useful functionality of being able to link into chains; furthermore, the various amino acids are distinguished by the nature of their carbon backbone and the side chains that, in turn, confer additional functions, solubility and linking capabilities to these entities.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the stretch are enzymes. “Enzymes are biological catalysts … that dramatically accelerate chemical reactions, often by many orders of magnitude compared to the uncatalyzed reaction.” Thus begins the Kellis and Lad chapter introducing enzymes and their applications in personal care in the Lad-edited book Biotechnology in Personal Care. The authors continue:

Enzymes are protein molecules are very complex. A protein consists of a linear chain of hundreds of amino acid building blocks, which are produced in the cell, like beads on a string. Each chain of amino acids folds up into a very specific compact form, dictated by its linear amino acid sequence. Proteins are composed of 20 different types of amino acids, and it is the chemical properties of these amino acids and the interactions between them that dictate the particular compact form the amino acid sequence will adopt. In this manner, the linear sequence of the amino acid chain dictates the three-dimensional shape of a protein and consequently its function. The three-dimensional shape of a protein determines the location of crucial amino acids and puts them in position to carry out the function of the protein, such as catalysis of a chemical reaction…

More in Literature/Data