Creating the perfect enzyme

Enzymes have been used in food production for thousands of years - and now we create them ourselves.

Enzymes in history

Enzymes have been used in brewing, baking and alcohol production since prehistoric times - only our ancestors did not call them enzymes, but they certainly used them. One of the earliest written references to enzymes is found in Homer's Greek epic poems dating from about 800 BC, where mention is made of the use of enzymes in the production of cheese. The Japanese have also used naturally-occurring enzymes in the production of fermented products like sake - a Japanese schnapps brewed from rice - for more than a thousand years.

Bacteria and fungi produce most industrial enzymes

Naturally-occurring microorganisms are the most productive producers of enzymes. This knowledge has been exploited by industry for more than fifty years. Bacteria and fungi are the microorganisms best suited to the industrial production of enzymes. They are easy to handle, can be grown in huge tanks without light, and have a very high growth rate.
Most of Novozymes' enzymes are produced by the bacterium Bacillus subtilis and the fungus Aspergillus oryzae. Both have a huge capacity for producing enzymes and are completely harmless for humans.

Some microbes are more efficient enzyme producers than others

The ideal microorganism grows quickly and produces lots of the desired enzyme at mild temperatures whilst consuming inexpensive nutrients. However, like most things in life, the ideal microorganism is hard to come by. Most microorganisms found in the wild are not well suited to domestication in large fermentation tanks. Some only produce tiny quantities of enzyme or take a long time to grow. Others can produce undesired by-products that would disturb industrial processes. Novozymes, on the other hand, has a large collection of microorganisms that are perfect production organisms.

Combining organisms gives the perfect solution

Some microorganisms have the capability of producing the perfect enzyme. Others could win the Olympic gold medal in growth and enzyme production. By combining the best from each organism, we are able to obtain a microorganism that grows very quickly on inexpensive nutrients, whilst at the same time producing large quantities of the right enzyme. This is done by identifying the gene that codes for the desired enzyme and transferring it to a production organism known to be a good enzyme producer.

Microbe genes can be modified to make better enzymes

Industrial enzymes need to be perfectly suited to the tasks that they perform, but sometimes the perfect enzyme for a specific job is impossible to find. This does not mean, however, that we can't make an enzyme for the job. Normally our scientists can find a naturally-occurring enzyme that is almost perfect, and using modern biotechnology we can upgrade it to the desired efficiency. This is done by altering small parts of the genes in the microorganism which codes for the production of the enzyme. These tiny alterations only alter the structure of the enzyme very slightly, but this is normally enough to make a good enzyme into a perfect enzyme.