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Saint Mary’s Scientists Isolate Most Fragile Complex of CO2

7 April, 2014

The scientific community is buzzing about the recent discovery of cyanoformate by researchers at Saint Mary’s University and the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Formed when cyanide (CN-) bonds to carbon dioxide (CO2), cyanoformate (NCCO2-) is a by-product of the fruit ripening process that has previously evaded detection.

While investigating weakly bonded carbon dioxide compounds, the research team led by Saint Mary’s Dr. Jason Clyburne and Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen, University of Jyväskylä, isolated the fragile and elusive cyanoformate anion. With the support of an international team of scientists, including Dr. Ulrike Werner-Zwanziger, Dalhousie University; Dr. Christa Brosseau, Saint Mary’s University; and Master of Science students Luke Murphy and Scott Harroun, they characterized cyanoformate’s structure using crystallography, spectroscopy, and computational chemistry.

Crystal structure of enzyme that produces cyanoformate (i.e., the ethylene-forming enzyme)


Crystal structure of enzyme that produces cyanoformate (i.e., the ethylene-forming enzyme)] 

Potential implications for carbon-capture technologies

The team’s findings demonstrate that cyanoformate is very unstable and allows carbon dioxide in fruit to deactivate cyanide at the enzyme’s active site where chemical reactions place. Subsequently, carbon dioxide behaves as a type of prophylactic for the cyanide, breaking down and releasing the toxic cyanide far away from the enzyme’s active site. While this “caps off” the toxic reactivity of cyanide in fruit, the implications extend far beyond plants.

Recognizing the factors governing the stability of cyanoformate furthers our understanding of carbon-capture, a process used to trap and store carbon dioxide in the environment.

“Here we have a perfect example of nature taming a poison, and what better way to learn the chemistry of carbon-capture than from nature itself?” says Dr. Jason Clyburne, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Science and Materials, and professor of Environmental Science and Chemistry at Saint Mary’s University.

Saint Mary’s Master of Science candidate Luke Murphy, who prepared the crystalline material for the study, explains: "One of the biggest challenges in carbon capture is finding a material that not only captures CO2, but easily releases it. Cyanoformate does both, and can be used as a model to develop a greener alternative."

The team’s discovery highlights the importance of applied chemistry to other areas of science and indicates there is still more to be learned about the chemistry of carbon dioxide in cells. It also suggests that much of the chemistry we know from standard chemical studies in beakers is likely not representative of what occurs in, for example, enzymes and porous solids, due to the low polarity of the reaction medium.

“The fact that cyanoformate was undetected for so long begs the question: What other simple chemistry have we missed?” asks Dr. Heikki M. Tuononen, Academy of Finland research fellow, and senior lecturer at University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

The results of their two-year study were recently published in Science.