Harnessing the power of enzymes

Research Lives: Dr Kelly Dwyer, research fellow, National University of Singapore

You work with enzymes and you are a big fan of them - why?

Enzymes are really powerful. They are naturally occurring molecules that can speed up specific chemical reactions, and in my work I look at enzymes that are present naturally in microorganisms and how we can apply them to industrial processes.

What are you working on now?

At the National University of Singapore I am in a group led by Prof Li Zhi. At the moment one of our industry partners is interested to see if we can use enzymes to convert a type of chemical called an alkene into an alcohol and back again. Doing that has the potential to add a lot of value.


How do you develop enzymes that could work well for that?

I am starting with an enzyme from a microorganism that can catalyse this kind of reaction naturally. We make small changes to the enzyme and then we carry out tests and screen to see if any of the changes will have the desired outcomes. if we get a positive result then we scale it up to larger quantities to see if it still works.

Were you always interested in biology?

Not until I was choosing subjects for my Leaving Cert. I was in Rockwell College in Cashel at that stage, and I had decided that science wasn’t for me. But the way my subject selection fell I had to pick a science, and biology was there in the list so I chose it. Our teacher, Ms Duggan, she was just amazing, a very inspiring person and she believed in our potential.

And how did you get into the molecular biology side of things?

I was playing rugby at provincial level in school, so I was drawn to study at the University of Limerick and I chose industrial biochemistry. I have to admit I wasn’t really applied to the studies, but then in third year we had a lecture on molecular biology and immediately a lightbulb went on in my head, I knew what I wanted to do for my career and I focused on getting my grades up so I could do a PhD in it.

When did you start working with enzymes?

I did my PhD between UL and Monaghan Mushrooms, we were looking at how enzymes could be used to add value to waste streams. I was lucky that my PhD supervisor was Prof Gary Walsh in UL, and in Monaghan I worked with Dr Alison Winger and Ian S. Bentley. They are all enzyme experts and I still draw daily on the wisdom they taught me.

What would you like people to know about enzymes?

They can bring lots of benefits compared to using chemicals in industrial processes. Enzymes can make processes much more sustainable, the ingredients and temperatures and products are often more environmentally friendly, and there is less harmful waste.

And are you still playing rugby?

No, I have a shoulder injury so I can’t play contact sports. But I play a lot of flag football here in Singapore. It is like American football but everyone wears a little flag on them and you have to remove the flag from your opponents. I am on the board of American Football Ireland, and I am training to hopefully represent Ireland in the European flag football championships in Limerick in August 2023.

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation