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Nature. 2010 May 6;465(7294):115-9. doi: 10.1038/nature08992. Epub 2010 Apr 21.

Oxidation of methane by a biological dicopper centre.

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  • 1Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Cell Biology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 60208, USA.


Vast world reserves of methane gas are underutilized as a feedstock for the production of liquid fuels and chemicals owing to the lack of economical and sustainable strategies for the selective oxidation of methane to methanol. Current processes to activate the strong C-H bond (104 kcal mol(-1)) in methane require high temperatures, are costly and inefficient, and produce waste. In nature, methanotrophic bacteria perform this reaction under ambient conditions using metalloenzymes called methane monooxygenases (MMOs). MMOs thus provide the optimal model for an efficient, environmentally sound catalyst. There are two types of MMO. Soluble MMO (sMMO) is expressed by several strains of methanotroph under copper-limited conditions and oxidizes methane with a well-characterized catalytic di-iron centre. Particulate MMO (pMMO) is an integral membrane metalloenzyme produced by all methanotrophs and is composed of three subunits, pmoA, pmoB and pmoC, arranged in a trimeric alpha(3)beta(3)gamma(3) complex. Despite 20 years of research and the availability of two crystal structures, the metal composition and location of the pMMO metal active site are not known. Here we show that pMMO activity is dependent on copper, not iron, and that the copper active site is located in the soluble domains of the pmoB subunit rather than within the membrane. Recombinant soluble fragments of pmoB (spmoB) bind copper and have propylene and methane oxidation activities. Disruption of each copper centre in spmoB by mutagenesis indicates that the active site is a dicopper centre. These findings help resolve the pMMO controversy and provide a promising new approach to developing environmentally friendly C-H oxidation catalysts.

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