Department of Chemistry

Department of Chemistry University of Oxford
Name: Dr Leonie Kertess

Biography

I grew up in Munich, Germany, a city very close to the Alps where I spent a lot of time with my family. Being outdoors aroused my interest in nature and its underlying principles ever since I was a small child, which in turn made me decide to study biology and chemistry. While finishing school, I was debating to go into Medicine or Biochemistry and chose the latter as I wanted to understand the underlying processes in nature on a (sub)cellular level.

After my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at the TU München, I moved on to Strasbourg, France to do my master’s in chemistry. The decision to go abroad was motivated by my passion for the French language and culture. During my master’s thesis I was introduced to the field of bioinorganic chemistry which piqued my curiosity and has held my interest ever since. In my opinion, it’s a highly interdisciplinary field and I am amazed by the way nature evolved highly efficient metal-containing biocatalysts which can’t be met by chemically synthesized mimics. Luckily, I found a suitable PhD position at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany where I altered the coordination sphere around the unique active site of [FeFe]‑hydrogenases using site-directed mutagenesis. Hydrogenases catalyse the evolution/uptake of hydrogen and a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanism may contribute to the realization of sustainable hydrogen catalysts.

While doing my PhD I collaborated with the Armstrong group here in Oxford due to their outstanding expertise in protein film electrochemistry. Intrigued by this technique, I decided to perform a 9-month research stay in the Armstrong group supported by a Gateway Fellowship awarded from the Ruhr-Universität Research School PLUS, funded by Germany’s Excellence Initiative [DFG GSC 98/3] to learn more about this technique.

Current research

My current research project in Oxford is motivated by a persistent energy problem in our society. Currently, energy is mainly consumed from non-renewable fuel sources which produce several environmental hazards from extraction to use. The use of renewable energy sources is limited due to the current lack of storage solutions. It is envisaged that molecular hydrogen (H2) may serve as a CO2 neutral energy carrier since its combustion leaves only water behind. However, efficient energy storage in the form of hydrogen currently still requires catalysts which are based on precious metals and therefore limit the commercial production of this route for energy storage. This is where hydrogenases come into play: metalloenzymes which can convert H2 to energy and protons acting as a biocatalyst. These enzymes rely on earth abundant metals (iron and nickel) and have been present in nature for millennia. It is believed that a detailed understanding of their H2 turnover mechanism will contribute to the design of sustainable catalysts based on abundant metals. Nature has evolved two phylogenetically distinct biocatalysts ([FeFe]- and [NiFe]‑hydrogenases) for the production and oxidation of H2. There is growing evidence that the underlying mechanism of hydrogen activation involves a “Frustrated Lewis Pair” mechanism for both [FeFe]- and [NiFe]-hydrogenases. The evidence is particularly clear for [FeFe]‑hydrogenases, whereas for [NiFe]-hydrogenase open questions remain. Therefore, a set of [NiFe]-hydrogenase variants are subjected to biochemical and biophysical characterization including solution assays, protein film electrochemistry, FTIR spectroscopy and X-ray structure analysis. My goal is to make substantial contributions to the field of sustainable hydrogen catalysts by comparing and eventually unifying the underlying H2 turnover mechanisms in nature.

A little bit extra

Doing research has allowed me to work and live in three different countries which I truly enjoy. Working in international teams brings together cultural aspects from all over the world and I am happy to be part of it.  After doing research “actively” for 5 years, I am now currently looking into a career outside academia. I would love to bring my interest in politics, society and science together by working in the field of research funding and management. Outside of science I am passionate about the outdoors including hiking, skiing and travelling which in turn motivates me to keep up with my gym and cardio sessions after work.