Researchers planing using enzymes in industrial chemistry oxidation reactions

Inspired by nature, scientists reengineer enzymes

6:10 AM, 30th September 2013
applications of enzymes in industrial chemistry oxidation reactions
Scientists attempt to reengineer enzymes to introduce the methods of nature into industrial chemistry.

BRUSSELS, BELGIUM: Scientists attempt to reengineer enzymes to introduce the methods of nature into industrial chemistry. Natural enzymes being very clever molecular machines, catalyze 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.

“Enzymes are everywhere; even in our own body. It’s enzymes that turn our food into energy we can use,” said Marco Fraaije, Professor, Project Coordinator, Group Leader of the research, University of Groningen.

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 oxidation reactions. And they attract more and more attention for their use in chemical processes that are of interest to the chemical industry. Currently, these oxidation processes are very crude and difficult to control. They require very high temperatures 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.

“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 animal feed. 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,” said Wolfgang Kroutil, Professor, Enzymology, Institute of organic and bioorganic chemistry, Karl Franzens University.

Other experts concurs, but with some caveat. “I wonder if these three enzymes can be mass produced cheaply. 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,” said Gustav Kolstad, Senior Researcher, Department of biotechnology, University of Aas in Norway.

Meanwhile 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.

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