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Research (Pimchai Chaiyen)

Our research interests span enzyme catalysis, enzyme engineering, systems biocatalysis, metabolic engineering and synthetic biology. We cover the entire spectrum from fundamental research applications to industrial uses and innovations. We are committed to cutting-edge scientific research and development of  technologies for green chemistry, white biotechnology, biofuels, biorefinery, biosensors and bio-imaging. In this endeavor, we collaborate with several private sector entities in Thailand. Our group has also established a startup venture, Enzmart Biotech. 

Our group is credited with pioneering research on more than 30 enzymatic reactions, including flavin dependent, PLP-dependent, redox and aldolase enzymes. We have also engineered several metabolic pathways for applications of “cell factories” in bioindustry and engineered cells for detection applications. We have expertise in rapid kinetics, advanced spectroscopy, theoretical and structural studies to study biophysical principles underlying each enzymatic system. We employ integrated methodology such as enzyme engineering, metabolic engineering and synthetic biology to turn our enzymes into practical uses.

Enzymes are catalysts that are vital for all organisms to maintain their cellular activities. Understanding enzyme reaction mechanisms has tremendous significance in drug discovery, because species-specific enzyme inhibition leads to achievement of therapeutic goals. Enzymes are also very useful in industry because they can increase rates of reactions enormously. Enzyme-catalyzed reactions also require much lower activation energy. Since enzymes’ catalytic power originates from specificity around active sites, reactions catalyzed by enzymes are also advantageous in that they give regio- and stereo specific products. With the chemical industry seeking to reduce its energy and environmental footprint, the demand for utilizing enzymes as green biocatalysts to synthesize specialty compounds in food, chemical and pharmaceutical industries has increased greatly.

Our current research can be classified into four main themes.

1. Biocatalysis (using enzymes in synthesis of valuable chemicals). The chemicals industry is under pressure to conserve energy, reduce CO2 emissions and minimize toxic waste so as to reduce environmental damage. Biocatalysis is the use of enzymatic reactions in the forms of isolated enzymes or in whole cells to catalyze chemical reactions. The use of enzymatic reactions in chemical production can contribute to greener and cleaner industries. With the catalytic power of enzymes, the process can be operated under mild pH and temperature and avoid creation of hazardous intermediates and waste. 

The enzymes being investigated in our group with potential applications in these areas include flavin dependent oxygenases, halogenases, dehalogenases, oxidases, metal-dependent oxygenases and aldolases, and PLP-dependent aldolases. Substrates for these enzymes are mostly aromatic compounds, sugars and amino acid that are derived from biomass. 


2. Biorefinery (using biological systems to convert biomass or agricultural waste into bioenergy and valuable materials). The concept of biorefinery involves conversion of low value biomass derived from agricultural industries into bio-based products for food, feed, chemicals and materials industries, or into useful bioenergy and biofuels. Our research focuses on using engineered metabolic pathways via synthetic biology approach to convert biomasss into higher value chemicals and energy. As Thailand is an agricultural country, research into this area can create tremendous value from agricultural waste and help in sustainable economic development by reducing dependence on imported and fossil fuels.

Our group studies metabolic pathways that can convert biomass into valuable building blocks for industries such as monomers for bioplastics and other useful chemicals. We also study anaerobic redox reactions involving pathways of biogas production to find enzymes that can help improve efficiency of CH4 production from waste. 


3. Biodetoxification (converting toxic waste and chemicals to create cleaner environment). Agrochemicals such as herbicides, insecticides and disinfectant agents are among the most heavily used chemicals globally. Manufacture of many of these products uses chlorophenols (CPs) as intermediates. CPs are highly toxic, and their accumulation and degradation in the environment creates serious long-term problems. Our groups studies enzymatic pathways that can be used to detoxify or safely degrade chlorophenols. We have also invented technology for easy field detection of these toxic compounds.

4. Bioreporter and Biosensors (tools for biomedical and environmental detection). Some of the enzymatic reactions studied by our group can generate signals such as light or electron output. These reactions can be linked to detection of specific molecules including sugar, phenols or chlorophenols. We have also developed proprietary technology based on an enzyme bacterial luciferase isolated in Thailand. This can be used as a gene reporter for specific gene detection. We are developing genetic systems that can be used as in vivo cell monitoring tools. This technology has high value in biomedical research market.