Enzyme prospecting in the land of fire and ice

Tuesday, 13 January, 2015
An EU-funded project has extracted enzymes found among Iceland’s volcanoes that could lead to more efficient and greener industrial processes – from making food to biofuels. A number of these enzymes have already been patented, ushering in a new generation of natural catalysts for chemical processes and helping industry become more competitive.
Geyser, Iceland

Iceland’s dramatic volcanic landscape continues to inspire and enthral locals, tourists and scientists alike and remains one of the best places on earth to study geothermal energy (heat energy generated and stored in the earth).

The beautiful terrain also happens to be teeming with microscopic enzymes tailored to cope with these harsh conditions. A group of EU-funded scientists wanted to discover whether some of these tough enzymes could be used to improve industrial processes that turn carbohydrates into consumer products.

Catalysing industrial competitiveness

Carbohydrates, which include complex sugars – or polysaccharides – such as starches, are very common molecules. They are widely used in the food industry but also find numerous applications in areas such as pharmaceuticals, construction, paints and biofuels. Enzymes perform a crucial role in breaking down and synthesising these carbohydrate molecules.

“The underlying aim of the AMYLOMICS project has been to help increase the economic growth and sustainability of European industry by improving the efficiency of these bioconversion processes,” explains project coordinator Gudmundur Oli Hreggvidsson, a professor of microbiology at the University of Iceland and head of the biotechnology section at Matis, a biotech and food science company in Iceland. “The technology developed in this project has enabled the rapid retrieval of novel gene-encoding enzymes from extreme resources, for a variety of uses.”

Progress has been impressive. In the space of just three years, a number of enzymes have been taken from discovery to full process development. These enzymes promise to be more efficient and thermally stable than conventional enzymes, potentially enabling higher operating temperatures and thus greater solubility of polysaccharides for more complete reactions.

More than 4500 novel gene-encoding carbohydrate-active enzymes were identified in this project, using the tools developed. From these, some 300 were extracted for further study, and about 200 cloned.

“About 138 enzymes were then screened for industrial-relevant properties with more than 50 candidate enzymes selected for application studies and detailed product analysis including high yield production,” says Hreggvidsson.

While only a fraction of the discovered enzymes could be investigated during the project, which ended in February 2014, the former partners are following up on several of these promising leads. Patents have been applied for on five enzymes for use in the processing and modification of polysaccharides, while 15 new enzymes have entered the demonstration and marketing phase. One particular enzyme has since been developed and licensed to a small business for use in a recently developed bio-refinery process.

Environmentally responsible reactions

Over time, expanding the number of available enzymes for carbohydrate synthesis will also have a positive impact on the environment – replacing chemical processes with environmentally benign ones.

“Europe has traditionally been strong in the application of enzymes for industrial processing of bulk carbohydrate biomass,” says Hreggvidsson. “But to remain competitive, we need to provide a new generation of bio-based products. These biocatalysts we’ve discovered and developed have great potential to supplement or supplant decreasing fossil fuel-based resources.”

Ultimately, AMYLOMICS’ research will help to reinforce the sustainability of European starch and carbohydrate industries, and strengthen companies involved in enzyme discovery and development, he adds. Increasing the number of enzymes available should also result in new products coming onto the market.

AmylolEnzymes Captured by Targeted Metagenomics
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