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IU scientists create self-assembling biocatalyst for the production of hydrogen; modified hydrogenase in a virus shell

Scientists at Indiana University have created a highly efficient self-assembling biomaterial that catalyzes the formation of hydrogen. A modified hydrogenase enzyme that gains strength from being protected within the protein shell (capsid) of a bacterial virus, this new material is 150 times more efficient than the unaltered form of the enzyme.

The material is potentially far less expensive and more environmentally friendly to produce than other catalytic materials for hydrogen production. The process of creating the material was recently reported in the journal Nature Chemistry.

The genetic material used to create the enzyme, hydrogenase, is produced by two genes from the common bacteria Escherichia coli, inserted inside the protective capsid using methods previously developed by these IU scientists. The genes, hyaA and hyaB, are two genes in E. coli that encode key subunits of the hydrogenase enzyme. The capsid comes from the bacterial virus known as bacteriophage P22.

The resulting biomaterial, called “P22-Hyd,” is not only more efficient than the unaltered enzyme but also is produced through a simple fermentation process at room temperature.

In addition, P22-Hyd both breaks the chemical bonds of water to create hydrogen and also works in reverse to recombine hydrogen and oxygen to generate power. The material can be used either as a hydrogen production catalyst or as a fuel cell catalyst.

Essentially, we’ve taken a virus’s ability to self-assemble myriad genetic building blocks and incorporated a very fragile and sensitive enzyme with the remarkable property of taking in protons and spitting out hydrogen gas. The end result is a virus-like particle that behaves the same as a highly sophisticated material that catalyzes the production of hydrogen.

This material is comparable to platinum, except it’s truly renewable. You don’t need to mine it; you can create it at room temperature on a massive scale using fermentation technology; it’s biodegradable. It’s a very green process to make a very high-end sustainable material.

—Professor Trevor Douglas, study leader

The form of hydrogenase is one of three occurring in nature: di-iron (FeFe)-, iron-only (Fe-only)- and nitrogen-iron (NiFe)-hydrogenase. The third form was selected for the new material due to its ability to easily integrate into biomaterials and tolerate exposure to oxygen.

NiFe-hydrogenase also gains significantly greater resistance upon encapsulation to breakdown from chemicals in the environment, and it retains the ability to catalyze at room temperature. Unaltered NiFe-hydrogenase, by contrast, is highly susceptible to destruction from chemicals in the environment and breaks down at temperatures above room temperature.

These sensitivities are some of the key reasons enzymes haven’t previously lived up to their promise in technology, Professor Douglas said. Another is their difficulty to produce.

No one’s ever had a way to create a large enough amount of this hydrogenase despite its incredible potential for biofuel production. But now we’ve got a method to stabilize and produce high quantities of the material—and enormous increases in efficiency.

—Professor Douglas

The development is highly significant according to Seung-Wuk Lee, professor of bioengineering at the University of California-Berkeley, who was not a part of the study. Professor Lee’s work has been cited in a US Congressional report on the use of viruses in manufacturing.

Douglas’ group has been leading protein- or virus-based nanomaterial development for the last two decades. This is a new pioneering work to produce green and clean fuels to tackle the real-world energy problem that we face today and make an immediate impact in our life in the near future.

—Professor Lee

Beyond the new study, Douglas and his colleagues continue to craft P22-Hyd into an ideal ingredient for hydrogen power by investigating ways to activate a catalytic reaction with sunlight, as opposed to introducing elections using laboratory methods.

Other IU scientists who contributed to the research were Megan C. Thielges, an assistant professor of chemistry; Ethan J. Edwards, a Ph.D. student; and Paul C. Jordan, a postdoctoral researcher at Alios BioPharma, who was an IU Ph.D. student at the time of the study.

This research was supported by the US Department of Energy.


  • Paul C. Jordan, Dustin P. Patterson, Kendall N. Saboda, Ethan J. Edwards, Heini M. Miettinen, Gautam Basu, Megan C. Thielges & Trevor Douglas (2015) “Self-assembling biomolecular catalysts for hydrogen production” Nature Chemistry doi: 10.1038/nchem.2416



Seems to have the best of both worlds (both directions) if it can be mass replicated at a low cost.

Does this mean that large quantities of lower cost H2 and clean e-power could be carried out by 2020/2022?

If so, could be very beneficial for REs and FCEVs?


Please Wake-up now. Im sick and tire of paying high price for my gasoline and i don't like batteries so use this endless hydrogen fuel without any pollution and use it directly in hydrogen fuelcell and make also synthetic gasoline and diesel and kerosene with this hydrogen combine with ambiant co2. I repeat im sick of paying high dollar for gasoline and also electricity. Make plenty of this free hydrogen and power electric plant and make synthetic lower pollution gasoline for my actual car, no need to change cars as opposed to many blogger that drean of paying big price for a silly bev of f-cell costly car. All i need is ultra cheap plentiful regular 88 octan gasoline. I know it can be done now, is it clear now. Forget epa, exxon, doa, greencarcongress, shell, Toyota, gm, the mob, worker union, north korea, lets do it now. Im ready to forget exxon, shell, chevron for my gasoline. Start a new brand name at lower cost and i will be a consumer for the next 30 years and i will tell everyone also so hundreds of new faithful consumers for this new hydrogen production method.


Burning 100 (+/-) million barrels of liquid fuel/day and as much coal will soon destroy us and the planet.

Using clean electricity from REs and clean H2 for FCs may save us from early extinction.

We may not have a choice.


Bacterial plasmids (the ring shaped DNA in bacteria) plus viral encapsulation, plus artificial cells with appropriate ribosome and antigen structures will revolutionize chemistry. This is beyond biology, this is the emerging and autonomous field of molecular biology, which spooks true biologists and biochemists.


If it works as described, why make synthetic gas etc? A vat of the stuff in the basement being fed water could produce H to feed a fuel cell that generates electricity and heat. More can go into your FC car. You don't need other fuels.


It could be those 200 million vehicles that run on liquid hydrocarbon fuels in the U.S. with one billion world wide.

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