Tweaking Mother Nature's chemistry box

Sep 27, 2013 by Thijs Westerbeek
Tweaking Mother Nature's chemistry box
Credit: Alex Kuruz

Natural enzymes are very clever molecular machines. They are the catalyst for many of nature's chemical transformations. And the conditions they need to perform their task are rather precisely defined. There is a need to study enzymes, in order to adapt them as a means to harness their power for industrial scale chemical processes. For example enzymes included in washing machine detergent contribute to helping making the laundry clean. But they need to be adapted to survive the warm laundry conditions.

This is precisely what the recently completed Oxygreen project, funded by the EU, aimed to do. "Enzymes are everywhere; even in our own body," says project coordinator professor Marco Fraaije, group leader of the research division of molecular enzymology at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. "It's enzymes that turn our food into energy we can use."

The three enzymes under study in the project were: Cytochrome P450 monooxygenases, Baeyer-Villiger monooxygenases, and non-heme iron dioxygenases. All three can be used for performing refined . And they attract more and more attention for their use in that are of interest to the chemical industry. Currently, these are very crude and difficult to control. They require very and produce a lot of waste. An enzyme which could do the same thing at lower temperature and without producing as much waste on an industrial scale would be welcome.

So are the enzymes chosen by the project scientists really were the best ones for the task? Other European scientists think so. "Well, it's a good idea to choose enzymes which use oxygen, because oxygen is readily available everywhere, clean, and once the enzyme has performed it's task you can even use it as an ," says Wolfgang Kroutil, professor of enzymology at the Institute of organic and bioorganic chemistry of the Karl Fränzens University in Graz, Austria. "It's very simple to recycle in this fashion. Furthermore it's exactly these three enzymes which can be highly specific; they produce the desired substance, and nothing else. No waste products, and no pollution. Traditional chemistry isn't capable of doing that," he tells youris.com.

Other experts concurs, but with some caveat. "I wonder if these three enzymes can be mass produced cheaply," says Gustav Kolstad, senior researcher at the department of biotechnology of the University of Aas in Norway. "On the other hand, if the result of the biochemical reaction is valuable enough, for instance an expensive pharmaceutical, then I'm sure the industry will gladly pay the price," he tells youris.com.

Meanwhile the the enzyme engineering project appears to be a success. For example, a patent is pending on a process developed by one of the project partners to make a plastic using polymer precursors produced out of agricultural waste. This prompt industry adoption of the project results is encouraging. Marco Fraaije concludes: "The industry believes in it. And they just don't take any risks."

Explore further: Chemists slide a splitting catalyst over DNA for the first time

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Multi-talented enzyme—produced on large-scale

Oct 24, 2012

Papayas are delicious and healthy – and they contain papain, an enzyme that is isolated from the fruit and used in countless industries. They are used for brewing beer, the handling of meat products, the ...

Recommended for you

New tool identifies therapeutic proteins in a 'snap'

Aug 21, 2014

(Phys.org) —In human and bacterial cells, glycosylation – the chemical process of attaching complex sugar molecules to proteins – is as fundamental as it gets, affecting every biological mechanism from cell signaling ...

Treating pain by blocking the 'chili-pepper receptor'

Aug 20, 2014

Biting into a chili pepper causes a burning spiciness that is irresistible to some, but intolerable to others. Scientists exploring the chili pepper's effect are using their findings to develop a new drug ...

Moving single cells around—accurately and cheaply

Aug 19, 2014

Scientists at the Houston Methodist Research Institute have figured out how to pick up and transfer single cells using a pipette—a common laboratory tool that's been tweaked slightly. They describe this ...

The difficult question of Clostridium difficile

Aug 19, 2014

The bacterium Clostridium difficile causes antibiotic-related diarrhoea and is a growing problem in the hospital environment and elsewhere in the community. Understanding how the microbe colonises the hu ...

User comments : 0