Light-driven dinitrogen reduction catalyzed by a CdS:nitrogenase MoFe protein biohybrid

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Science  22 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6284, pp. 448-450
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2091

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Enzymes make fertilizer with sunlight

Nitrogenase enzymes catalyze the biological production of fixed nitrogen. Because this is not enough to sustain modern agriculture, industrial fertilizers containing ammonia are produced via the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process. Brown et al. developed a way to use nitrogenase enzymes from nitrogen-fixing bacteria to make ammonia in vitro without other biological steps or high-energy inputs. Light-activated CdS nanorods provided electrons to the FeMo nitrogenase enzyme to reduce nitrogen and produce ammonia at rates up to 64% of biological nitrogen fixation. These nanoparticle-protein complexes show the potential for solar-driven ammonia production.

Science, this issue p. 448


The splitting of dinitrogen (N2) and reduction to ammonia (NH3) is a kinetically complex and energetically challenging multistep reaction. In the Haber-Bosch process, N2 reduction is accomplished at high temperature and pressure, whereas N2 fixation by the enzyme nitrogenase occurs under ambient conditions using chemical energy from adenosine 5′-triphosphate (ATP) hydrolysis. We show that cadmium sulfide (CdS) nanocrystals can be used to photosensitize the nitrogenase molybdenum-iron (MoFe) protein, where light harvesting replaces ATP hydrolysis to drive the enzymatic reduction of N2 into NH3. The turnover rate was 75 per minute, 63% of the ATP-coupled reaction rate for the nitrogenase complex under optimal conditions. Inhibitors of nitrogenase (i.e., acetylene, carbon monoxide, and dihydrogen) suppressed N2 reduction. The CdS:MoFe protein biohybrids provide a photochemical model for achieving light-driven N2 reduction to NH3.

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