Structure and Function of Alkane Monooxygenase (AlkB)

John T. Groves, Liang Feng, Rachel Narehood Austin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Conspectus Every year, perhaps as much as 800 million tons of hydrocarbons enters the environment; alkanes make up a large percentage of it. Most are transformed by organisms that utilize these molecules as sources of energy and carbon. Both aerobic and anaerobic alkane transformation chemistries exist, capitalizing on the presence of alkanes in both oxic and anoxic environments. Over the past 40 years, tremendous progress has been made in understanding the structure and mechanism of enzymes that catalyze the transformation of methane. By contrast, progress involving enzymes that transform liquid alkanes has been slower with the first structures of AlkB, the predominant aerobic alkane hydroxylase in the environment, appearing in 2023. Because of the fundamental importance of C-H bond activation chemistries, interest in understanding how biology activates and transforms alkanes is high. In this Account, we focus on steps we have taken to understand the mechanism and structure of alkane monooxygenase (AlkB), the metalloenzyme that dominates the transformation of liquid alkanes in the environment (not to be confused with another AlkB that is an α-ketogluturate-dependent enzyme involved in DNA repair). First, we briefly describe what is known about the prevalence of AlkB in the environment and its role in the carbon cycle. Then we review the key findings from our recent high-resolution cryoEM structure of AlkB and highlight important similarities and differences in the structures of members of class III diiron enzymes. Functional studies, which we summarize, from a number of single residue variants enable us to say a great deal about how the structure of AlkB facilitates its function. Next, we overview work from our laboratories using mechanistically diagnostic radical clock substrates to characterize the mechanism of AlkB and contextualize the results we have obtained on AlkB with results we have obtained on other alkane-oxidizing enzymes and explain these results in light of the enzyme’s structure. Finally, we integrate recent work in our laboratories with information from prior studies of AlkB, and relevant model systems, to create a holistic picture of the enzyme. We end by pointing to critical questions that still need to be answered, questions about the electronic structure of the active site of the enzyme throughout the reaction cycle and about whether and to what extent the enzyme plays functional roles in biology beyond simply initiating the degradation of alkanes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3665-3675
Number of pages11
JournalAccounts of chemical research
Issue number24
StatePublished - Dec 19 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Chemistry


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