Tweaking Mother Nature's chemistry box

September 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

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

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: Pain-reliever ibuprofen makes enzyme oxidize styrene with hydrogen peroxide

Related Stories

Multi-talented enzyme—produced on large-scale

October 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 treating of wool ...

Recommended for you

Force triggers gene expression by stretching chromatin

August 26, 2016

How genes in our DNA are expressed into traits within a cell is a complicated mystery with many players, the main suspects being chemical. However, a new study by University of Illinois researchers and collaborators in China ...

3-D printed structures that 'remember' their shapes

August 26, 2016

Engineers from MIT and Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) are using light to print three-dimensional structures that "remember" their original shapes. Even after being stretched, twisted, and bent at extreme ...

New method developed for producing some metals

August 25, 2016

The MIT researchers were trying to develop a new battery, but it didn't work out that way. Instead, thanks to an unexpected finding in their lab tests, what they discovered was a whole new way of producing the metal antimony—and ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.