Catalysis research could be used to fight bacterial infections


The biological world has unparalleled abilities to control structures, functions, reactions and energy transfer with great efficiency and accuracy. Yan Zhao, professor of chemistry and a member of Iowa State’s Center for Catalysis, uses biomimetic chemistry to “abstract good design from nature,” which could one day be used to fight bacterial infections.


Zhao and his team are currently developing enzyme-mimetic catalysts for selective decomposition of signal molecules used by pathogenic bacteria to communicate with each other. His research is supported by two recent grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling $1.6 million.

“This is non-traditional catalysis,” Zhao said. “One of our main research goals is to design molecules that functionally mimic certain biological systems, and in turn prepare molecules, polymers, and materials that have useful and superior properties.”

One of Zhao’s interests is to counter bacterial infections associated with biofilm formation. He said bacteria are an interesting species because although they are single-celled, they communicate with each other very effectively through chemical signals.

“Bacteria are pretty smart,” he said. “They are quiet and don’t do much when they are vulnerable in low population. They know they can’t compete until there are enough of them.”

When bacteria know they have a large enough community, however, they form biofilms and get aggressive. In the biofilm state, they can be 1000-times more resistant to antibiotics.

“The majority of bacterial infections are a result of this communication between bacteria,” he said. “If we can break down the bacteria’s signal molecules using targeted catalysis, we could quench or suppress the communication between bacteria, which would make it difficult for them to form biofilms.”

“We are intercepting the communication between bacteria, which is a very fundamental level of science,” he said. “We are developing a new material from the bottom up, but we have an application in mind, too.”

Zhao’s plan is to create a nanoparticle that is close in size to a typical enzyme – small, water-soluble, and organic. He is also turning these nanoparticles into “synthetic antibodies” that can recognize drug molecules, peptides, oligosaccharides, and other biologically important molecules. His NSF and NIH grants will fund his research through 2019.