What is an enzyme?
An enzyme is a type of protein present in all living organisms. They are responsible for a number of reactions and biological activities in plants, animals, human beings and microorganisms. Wherever a substance needs to be transformed into another, nature uses enzymes to speed up the process.
Enzymes are produced from living cells – typically microorganisms. They are the tools of nature, cutting and pasting all kinds of biological material and kick-starting key biological processes. For example, it is the enzymes in our stomachs that break down food into a form that can be absorbed into our bodies and converted into energy.
Why do we use enzymes?
Enzymes are highly efficient in increasing the reaction rate of chemical and biochemical reactions which typically proceed very slowly, or in some cases, not at all. Therefore enzymes can be used to make better use of raw materials, save water and energy, and almost always replace toxic chemicals. A good example of greater efficiency due to enzymes is the production of fruit juice. Adding enzymes before the fruit is pressed makes it possible to extract far more juice and generate less waste.
What are the benefits of using enzymes? - Detergents as an example
The environment benefits enormously from the use industrial biotechnology – in many cases without the consumers being aware of this. One everyday example of this is when we do a load of laundry. Enzymes have been used in detergents since the 1960s and since then they have helped reducing the amount of chemicals released into the aquatic environment and decreased the energy needed to do a laundry. In fact detergent enzymes represent one of the largest and most successful applications of modern industrial biotechnology.
Washing machines are one of the biggest consumers of household electricity, and 80% of the electricity is used to heat the water. Historically, the addition of enzymes helped reducing washing temperatures from 60°C+ to 40°C and with the new generation cold water enzymes, washing temperatures can even be reduced to 30°C, without sacrificing cleanliness. This substantial reduction in washing temperature saves 30% of the electricity used on the laundry. This reduction obviously has not only reduced the electricity bills but also significantly reduced CO2 emissions. Studies show that CO2 emissions can be reduced by 100 g per wash by reducing washing temperature from 40°C to 30°C alone.
Using enzymes not only reduces the amount of electricity needed to do a laundry: the duration of the washing cycle, water consumption and the use of harsh chemicals can all be reduced when enzymes are added to a detergent (as an example, addition of enzymes can reduce the use of surfactants with 50%). Since enzymes are bio-degradable, their use generally leads to a reduced environmental footprint.
What is the role of biotechnology?
Although enzymes are found throughout nature, they are quite often not available in sufficient quantities or with the right characteristics for industrial use.
Biotechnology offers the possibility of producing enzymes for industrial use from microorganisms by optimizing the living conditions of these microorganism and, thereby, improving the characteristics of the enzymes they produce.
More information onEnzyme on Wikipedia
An overview of enzymes in industrial applications
What does laundry detergent consist of?