Two recent papers to come out of the Weizmann Institute have possible medical applications — one in preventing pregnancy, the other in preventing the deadly effects of nerve gas.
The first might give pause to those among us who are “believers” in antioxidants. It seems that those “nasty” molecules they eliminate — reactive oxygen species — have a positive role to play, at least when it comes to fertility. In the study, mopping up reactive oxygen species with antioxidants in mouse ovaries blocked ovulation. So while women who are trying to get pregnant might consider knocking off the acai juice and vitamin E, the findings imply that various antioxidants might eventually be adapted for non-hormonal birth control.
The second is on the development of an enzyme that breaks down certain nerve agents before they can wreck havoc on muscles and nerves. Interestingly enough, our bodies make a version of this enzyme, known by the acronym PON1. This enzyme is a sort of jack of all trades: Among its primary talents, it can break down fatty deposits on artery walls. Prof. Dan Tawfik has been intrigued by the evolution of this enzyme: How could the leisurely course of evolution produce an enzyme for breaking down a chemical that was only invented around 50-60 years ago?
One of the insights of his research team: The same evolutionary process that produced this enzyme could be employed in the laboratory to create a new enzyme variant that is much more efficient and focused on one of its tasks. By applying mutation and selection to generations of PON1 in a test tube, he and his research team were able to create a new enzyme that protects against certain nerve gases, even at relatively high exposures.