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Published: Wednesday August 27, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Thursday August 28, 2014 MYT 5:13:49 PM

Prof Dr Raja Noor Zaliha: Adventures in microbe hunting

Enzymes are a crucial pillar of industrial biotechnology.

The global market for industrial enzymes has been growing, and is projected to hit US$7.1bil (RM22.5bil) by 2018.

Unfortunately, the main suppliers benefitting from this are based in Europe, North America, Japan, Russia and China.

Malaysia, like many other countries, relies on imports. Molecular biologist Prof Dr Raja Noor Zaliha Raja Abdul Rahman wants to change that. Her forte is the elucidation of the structure and function of proteins – the most basic units of biological machinery.

When proteins function as catalysts for specific chemical reactions, they are known as enzymes.

Over her career, Zaliha has isolated over 20 types of lipases and proteases (enzymes that break down fat and protein molecules) from various sampling sites across the country. She’s been everywhere from hot springs in Perak to the oil-contaminated soil near a night market to collect microbes.

These single-celled organisms are perfect for identifying novel and potentially commercially useful enzymes.

One of the most abundant life forms on Earth, microbes inhabit just about every niche you can think of. They are small, relatively easy to grow and have rapid life cycles, which makes them convenient to take back to the lab and study.

And study them she does.

One of Zaliha’s most promising finds came from a microbe collected from oily wastewater generated by a palm oil processing mill. It turned out to be a new species, and was named Geobacillus zalihae, after her.

What’s interesting about it is the enzyme it produces, T1 lipase.

“Dishwashers operate at high temperatures, and this enzyme, a lipase that could be used to break down the grease stuck to your dinner plate, is thermophilic, tolerating temperatures up to 70°C,” she explains, adding that UPM is currently developing it into a formula for automatic dishwasher detergents.

To understand how a protein achieves its biochemical function, you need a good look at its 3D architecture. Proteins need to be crystallised before they can be studied, but Earth’s gravity has a distorting effect on protein crystal formation. T1 Lipase got the chance to be crystallised in a zero-G environment.

Enzymes in space

It’s not every day that your research makes it to space, but on Oct 10, 2007, one of Zaliha’s enzymes did just that – one among a number of scientific experiments selected to take place in microgravity.

Safe in the hands of Angkasawan Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Al Masrie, T1 Lipase and another enzyme, F16L, blasted off from the steppes of Kazakhstan, travelling 240km beyond the stratosphere.

He came back to earth with a batch of large and beautifully formed protein crystals, and Zaliha could officially call herself a space scientist.

Since that first mission, she has continued to send proteins up to space, through collaborations with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency.

She continues to work on uncovering the molecular structures of novel microbial enzymes, producing data that is useful not just in itself, but also for future endeavours in genetic engineering – to enhance their activity as catalysts in the production of various industrial products.

She’s already developed another bio-product based on microbes: a fertiliser that increases plant yields and fertility, which has been tested on cocoa plants.

“We have filed a patent, locally and internationally, which is still pending,” she says.

As always, scientists like her can’t do it alone. Good networking between local industry entrepreneurs and academia is key, she says.

“We need more entrepreneurs to be brave enough to take up research innovations produced by our local universities. People seem to have a prejudice, that foreign R&D is better than ... in Malaysia,

“But you know what? We are doing OK on that front.”

Professor Dr Raja Noor Zaliha Raja Abdul Rahman

Current job title: Head of Enzyme and Microbial Technology Research Centre, Faculty of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences, Universiti Putra Malaysia

Likes: Reading, comedies, cooking shows, travelling to new places

Dislikes: Cakes, cheese, violent movies, traffic jams

Favourite song: No favourites/prefers light and easy music

Childhood ambition: Scientist

Grew up in: Perlis

Favourite food: Laksa utara

If you were a microbe, what type of microbe would you be and why? An extremophile – because it thrives under extreme conditions.

You are transported to a desert island and only get to take three items with you, what are they? A survival kit, my husband, and a boat full of petrol.

If you were a bacterium and could genetically modify yourself to have a super-trait, what would it be? The ability to hydrolyse and break down anything, so I would be an extremophile that can survive anywhere, and eat anything.

Related stories: 

Brains for progress: Scientists are changing the world

Dr Luqman Chuah Abdullah: Driven to innovate

Dr Chantara Thevy Ratnam: Polymer power


Tags / Keywords: Science & Technology, enzymes, space, UPM, microbes, crystallography, science

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