Recruiting enzymes to help the chemical industry
Industry can be hazardous when it mixes corrosive, polluting and potentially explosive chemicals. Sometimes nature offers alternatives to the classic chemical approach, and enzymes, the proteins that speed up chemical reactions, are simple to use and environmentally-friendly.
Businesses have been slow to exploit the potential offered by enzymes, however a European research project aimed to increase their use by applying genomic resources to fine-tune their catalytic – or reaction speeding - properties.
The EU-funded project, PEROXICATS, has developed enzymes with diverse properties to substitute harsh chemicals in more sustainable and environmentally-friendly oxidation processes. “The research done by the PEROXICATS team is expected to give the European chemical sector a toolbox of both novel and more robust enzymes of potential use as alternatives in specific industrial applications,” says project coordinator Ángel T. Martínez, from the Spanish Research Council (CSIC).
In recent decades, enzymes have been used in different industrial sectors, like food and drinks, textiles, pulp and paper, leather and personal care. The enzymes studied by PEROXICATS team might find uses in further applications, such as bulk chemicals and medicines.
The research work revolved around the peroxidases, a strong and versatile type of enzymes that use hydrogen peroxide to catalyse a variety of oxidative reactions. Thanks to new genetic engineering tools, enzymes and other proteins can be produced in a large-scale and at low cost by isolating or synthesising the corresponding genes and introducing them into suitable producing hosts like fungi. Fungi and other microorganisms are an easily-tapped source for these enzymes.
Part of the research within the project has been dedicated to find novel fungi from specific habitats, isolating 100 strains of interest that have been screened for the production of peroxidise-type of enzymes.
The researchers manipulated the enzymes through different techniques, including the so-called ‘non-rational’ approach, also known as directed evolution. This mimics the key steps of natural evolution (mutation, recombination and selection) while reducing the time scale from millions of years in nature to a few months of work in the laboratory.
The PEROXICATS research team has also been able to determine the mechanism used by the enzymes to transform a wide range of chemicals in potentially interesting reactions. “These results will become available for pilot or industrial scale evaluation thus strengthening the penetration of biotech solutions in the European chemical sector,” comments Martínez.
“Unlike other harsh reagents currently added to bring about chemical reactions, enzymes act as efficient biocatalysts in nature, are non-hazardous, biodegradable and derived from renewable resources,” says Martínez. “Their industrial use is therefore translated into societal benefits in terms of a decrease in energy consumption or more environmentally-friendly processes and goods, among others,” he concludes.