Rare enzymes could reduce CO2 emissions

In the cold waters of one of Greenland’s ice fjords they stand: the Ikka pillars, full of unknown enzymes that may benefit the climate and the environment.

In the Ikka Fjord in Greenland, one thousand stately, white pillars stand just beneath the surface of the water. They are made of the rare mineral ikait, and they teem with unknown microorganisms and enzymes, even though life certainly ought not to exist here.

According to an ancient Inuit legend, the pillars are fossils of Northerners who lived in the area long ago. One day they got into an argument with the local Inuits, who chased them out onto the ice in the fjord, which cracked and the Northerners were drowned. When the Inuits came back in kayaks in the spring, they saw the lifeless Northerners standing on the bottom of the sea as stone pillars.

The scientific explanation, however, is somewhat different. The Ikka Fjord is surrounded by a series of extinct volcanoes. Rainwater percolating through the volcanoes dissolves minerals and then finds its way into the fjord. When the mineral-rich rainwater meets sea salts, the rare ikait is formed as a sort of inverted underwater dripstone.

The inside of the columns is extremely alkaline. Despite this, Peter Stougaard, Associate Professor at the University of Copenhagen, has found previously unknown microorganisms and enzymes in the columns. It is still a mystery how the microorganisms have come to the Ikka Fjord, he says. The microorganisms have developed specific enzymes in order to survive in the highly corrosive, cold liquid inside the pillars.

Interesting for the development of enzymes for cold-water washing
Knowledge of the rare microorganisms and enzymes inside the Greenland ikait columns may be important for the development of enzymes that work at low temperatures. One such application could be to lower the temperature for washing clothes, which would save massive amounts of energy and CO2.

"So far we have been able to develop enzymes that work really well when washing at 30 °C. What is completely unique to the enzymes in the Ikka pillars is that they operate at temperatures as low as 6 °C and in an alkaline environment. This makes them particularly interesting because detergents are alkaline too," says Mads Bjørnvad, Science Manager at Novozymes.

Can save 18 million tons of CO2
If all European households lowered their wash temperatures from 30 to 10 °C and from 60 to 40 °C, the planet could save a round figure of 18 million tons of CO2. This corresponds to the annual emissions of 4–5 million cars.