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Improving the Quality of Life

Case Study


The enzymes
that came in from the cold

European researchers are finding useful industrially enzymes in some of the most hostile environments on the planet.



Most of the organisms that provide the enzymes currently in use by industry - food, detergents, detection of pollutants by biosensors - live in environments where the temperature ranges from 30C to 40C, so their enzymes' effectiveness is highly temperature-sensitive. Consequently, many processes require heating - at best expensive, at worst infeasible. Ensuring high-performance enzymatic activity at low temperatures therefore represents an important industrial goal. Where does the solution lie? Out in the cold, of course.

Next Stop: Antarctica
Researchers have discovered numerous micro-organisms that are perfectly adapted to extreme conditions - to temperatures as high as 100C, to acid or alkaline environments, and to very high salinity. In the nine-member Coldzyme project, for example, researchers have collected thousands of micro-organisms from around Antarctica and studied their enzymes to discover how they adapted to the cold. The project brings university research groups and companies from six countries together, and focuses on enzymatic activity of genuine interest to biotechnological application.
Within the space of one year the researchers had resolved the three-dimensional structure and patented two major enzymes: alpha-amylase, which could be used in the breadmaking, textiles, brewing and detergents industries, and a calcium-zinc protease, which could be useful for detergents and meat tenderising. They had also discovered the enzymes' secret: their extreme flexibility allows them to deform very easily in order to do their job.
The manufacturing partners have already begun testing certain enzymes, while the wider industrial community has followed the work through the BIOTECH programme's Microbiology Industrial Platform. Their interest is understandable, as the project has broken new ground in the area of cell factories, particularly in the fields of cold shock proteins, genetic control systems, membrane compositions and excretion mechanisms. The potential industrial applications are legion.

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