Inspiring peopleAnca Pordea

Evolution and enzymes
Researcher in Industrial Biotechnology
Anca Pordea
How would you explain your research?

What we are trying to do is to manipulate enzymes in order to persuade them to do reactions they don’t normally do. In your own body for example, a particular enzyme we work with is called alcohol dehydrogenase, and that degrades alcohol when you drink. What we are trying to do is to modify that enzyme and make it do different reactions than the natural one that it’s catalysing.

The first reaction I ever did caught fire!
What inspired you to pursue this area?

It mainly comes from what I was doing during my PhD: the area was very new when I started my doctorate. There had been something published in the 1970s, but the area wasn’t very developed. The person I did my PhD with is actually the best known person in the world in this field, and I contributed to that. In a sense it was him that inspired me personally – I thought that it sounded cool, and it just worked out.

The reactions I want to do are generally difficult reactions to get right – the first reaction I ever did caught fire! So I wanted to design the same reaction with an enzyme that doesn’t catch fire in water! [laughs]

How will your research affect the average person?

I’m hopeful this would impact on designing catalytic approaches to make chemicals in a less energy consuming way. The chemicals at the moment are relatively complex, so mainly it is pharmaceutical industry that is looking at this now, but hopefully more and more chemicals that are less complex will benefit in the future.

What has been the greatest moment of your career so far?

I was happy to get a lectureship here: I wanted to work in academia, and I moved country for it because I found a project here that someone used to be doing. Remember my reaction that caught fire? The only person in the world to have published on that reaction being performed by an enzyme was here – it was very, very lucky. I’m hoping I can pick it up at some point in the future.

What advice would you give to someone starting out?

Try and have as much fun as you can! I know the PhD can be up and down, but I had a lot of fun in my PhD, by knowing people, and discussing science with them, and also simply with lab work. Try and be open to that.

There’s a relatively high amount of work involved – you have to put the work in. You have to be curious, to discover, to go read. It’s never been a 9 to 5 since I started my PhD, but I think that relates to the fun, because if you consider it fun, it’s not really so daunting to go to the lab and do a reaction at 8pm or whatever.

I think it’s very valuable to try and understand the different disciplines. So I’m currently in an engineering department, I’m a chemist, and I learned biotechnology in my postdoc. I think it’s very important to understand other people, and to respect what they do, and to be a bit humble about it. You might know all the engineering in the world, but there are so many things you don’t know, and cool ideas can come out if you think outside your discipline.

Cool ideas can come out if you think outside your discipline
What is the biggest challenge in your field?

The biggest drawback is that natural enzymes are almost perfectly evolved, and artificial enzymes are not – they don’t have the selectivities and the activities that natural enzymes have, and the challenge is to understand why.

What is your best memory of being in Nottingham?

I’m not sure I should speak about it, but I think I’ve got my first grant. It’s not an official thing yet, and I’m very very happy, because it’s the first time I’ve got a grant that’s really my own thing, and I spent a lot of time developing it.

Another thing was when I was asked to coordinate a European doctoral training centre proposal, with quite a lot of people that when I was a PhD student they were already stars, and the encouragement and confidence I received was great.

What would you ask an expert in your field 50 years from now?

There’s an aspect which is evolution in the lab – millions of years of evolution you can now perform in a lab experiment on bacteria. I guess I would ask them how long it takes now – at the moment it takes six months. If it could take a week? That would change things.

If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing?

I like going up the mountains. So, if I wasn’t doing this, I don’t know what I’d be doing, but I would be travelling up mountains, being a guide or a climber or something. If not that, then just discovering and studying plants, organisms, geography, geology… anything that has to do with the great outdoors. I’m still dreaming about building a lab up the mountains!

What research other than your own really excites you right now?

So, it’s sort of in my field, but the first thing I thought of is scientists trying to find out how life started on earth. So, putting molecules together under different conditions of temperature, pressure, concentration, whatever they do. To see how amino acids got formed first, or how amino acids go together to form peptides and proteins. It’s quite interesting to find out how life evolved out of a soup.

Global Research Theme
Sustainable Societies

Research Priority Area 
Industrial Biotechnology

Anca Pordea is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering. She has worked in academic institutions in France, Switzerland and the UK, and is currently working on the design of enzymes for organic chemical transformations.

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