Confining proteins in synthetic nanoscale spatial compartments has offered a cell-free avenue to understand enzyme structure–function relationships and complex cellular processes near the physiological conditions, an important branch of fundamental protein biophysics studies. Enzyme confinement has also provided advancement in biocatalysis by offering enhanced enzyme reusability, cost-efficiency, and substrate selectivity in certain cases for research and industrial applications. However, the primary research efforts in this area have been focused on the development of novel confinement materials and investigating protein adsorption/interaction with various surfaces, leaving a fundamental knowledge gap, namely, the lack of understanding of the confined enzymes (note that enzyme adsorption to or interactions with surfaces differs from enzyme confinement as the latter offers an enhanced extent of restriction to enzyme movement and/or conformational flexibility). In particular, there is limited understanding of enzymes' structure, dynamics, translocation (into biological pores), folding, and aggregation in extreme cases upon confinement, and how confinement properties such as the size, shape, and rigidity affect these details. The first barrier to bridge this gap is the difficulty in “penetrating” the “shielding” of the confinement walls experimentally; confinement could also lead to high heterogeneity and dynamics in the entrapped enzymes, challenging most protein-probing experimental techniques. The complexity is raised by the variety in the possible confinement environments that enzymes may encounter in nature or on lab benches, which can be categorized to rigid confinement with regular shapes, rigid restriction without regular shapes, and flexible/dynamic confinement which also introduces crowding effects. Thus, to bridge such a knowledge gap, it is critical to combine advanced materials and cutting-edge techniques to re-create the various confinement conditions and understand enzymes therein. We have spearheaded in this challenging area by creating various confinement conditions to restrict enzymes while exploring experimental techniques to understand enzyme behaviors upon confinement at the molecular/residue level. This review is to summarize our key findings on the molecular level details of enzymes confined in (i) rigid compartments with regular shapes based on pre-formed, mesoporous nanoparticles and Metal–Organic Frameworks/Covalent-Organic Frameworks (MOFs/COFs), (ii) rigid confinement with irregular crystal defects with shapes close to the outline of the confined enzymes via co-crystallization of enzymes with certain metal ions and ligands in the aqueous phase (biomineralization), and (iii) flexible, dynamic confinement created by protein-friendly polymeric materials and assemblies. Under each case, we will focus our discussion on (a) the way to load enzymes into the confined spaces, (b) the structural basis of the function and behavior of enzymes within each compartment environments, and (c) technical advances of our methodology to probe the needed structural information. The purposes are to depict the chemical physics details of enzymes at the challenging interface of natural molecules and synthetic compartment materials, guide the selection of enzyme confinement platforms for various applications, and generate excitement in the community on combining cutting-edge technologies and synthetic materials to better understand enzyme performance in biophysics, biocatalysis, and biomedical applications.
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- National Science Foundation
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