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Vast world reserves of methane gas are underutilized as a feedstock for the production of liquid fuels and chemicals owing to the lack of economical and sustainable strategies for the selective oxidation of methane to methanol1. Current processes to activate the strong C–H bond (104 kcal mol−1) in methane require high temperatures, are costly and inefficient, and produce waste2. In nature, methanotrophic bacteria perform this reaction under ambient conditions using metalloenzymes called methane monooxygenases (MMOs). MMOs thus provide the optimal model for an efficient, environmentally sound catalyst3. There are two types of MMO. Soluble MMO (sMMO),expressed by several strains of methanotrophs under copper-limited conditions, oxidizes methane with a well-characterized catalytic di-iron centre4. Particulate MMO (pMMO) is an integral membrane metalloenzyme produced by all methanotrophs and is composed of three subunits, pmoA, pmoB and pmoC, arranged in a trimeric α3β3γ3 complex5. Despite 20 years of research and the availability of two crystal structures, the metal composition and location of the pMMO metal active site are not known. Here we show that pMMO activity is dependent on copper, not iron, and that the copper active site is located in the soluble domains of the pmoB subunit rather than within the membrane. Recombinant soluble fragments of pmoB (spmoB) bind copper and have propylene and methane oxidation activities. Disruption of each copper centre in spmoB by mutagenesis indicates that the active site is a dicopper centre. These findings help resolve the pMMO controversy and provide a promising new approach to developing environmentally friendly C–H oxidation catalysts.


Biochemistry | Molecular Biology


This is the author's post-print version, previously appearing in Nature, 2010, 2010, 465, 115-9.

The figures and tables do not appear in this post-print version. To view supplemental materials, please see the online version at: