Anyone who walks into a library recognizes its immediate logic: Books are categorized according to topic and in alphabetic order. Now imagine that a tornado hits the library and leaves it a mess, with books piled up in random order. Would you be able to find the book you need?
Professor Bernard Henrissat faced almost a similar task when he began to classify, characterize, and collect enzymes into a unique database, which today helps researchers and companies improve biotechnological processes, and which earned him the first ever Novozymes Prize.
- Imagine a tornado has hit a library. Classification is going into the library and ordering the books by content: Geography, history, literature, and placing them on the correct shelves. Once the books are classified, you can search precisely for what you need. This is much more efficient than picking a book at random and reading a portion of it to find out whether it corresponds to what you are looking for. This is somehow similar to what I’ve done with the carbohydrate active enzymes, says Bernard Henrissat, Director of Research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, France.
This year, Bernard Henrissat became the first recipient of the Novozymes Prize for outstanding biotech research. Awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation for the first time on March 17, 2015, the prize recognizes his decades-long research on enzymes that act on carbohydrate molecules. Professor Henrissat has characterized and systematized enzymes for biotech processes, which helps researchers and companies to discover and develop enzymes.
- The classification is based on the amino acid sequences of proteins, which come directly from DNA. My method thus makes use of the wealth of data from genome sequences and harnesses the predictive power of this data. The classification is a roadmap to enzyme discovery. It is an inspiration for protein engineers as it gives them clues to understand and imitate nature’s recipes to create new enzymes, he says.
His research focuses on carbohydrates such as starch, pectin, table sugar and cellulose. Carbohydrates are the source of carbon for many living organisms, but for a carbohydrate to be useful in nature, it has to be processed by an enzyme. Professor Henrissat studies how nature has evolved enzymes to process carbohydrates, and a key aspect is the creation and use of a classification of these enzymes.
A global impact
Bernard Henrissat’s work is used by scientists as well as companies to analyze genomes and examine an organism’s potential for carbohydrate metabolism. The aim is often to discover enzymes with an ability to break down the myriads of carbohydrates that exist in nature, and there is a huge potential in the change that the enzymes catalyze, according to Henrissat.
- The impact is connected to environment and resources in the context of an expanding human population. Enzyme technology has the power to solve a number of issues, such as production of second-generation transport biofuels. The price of oil is a player in the equation, but the environmental factors remain even when the price of oil is low; and it won’t be low forever. It is therefore important to develop enzyme solutions to produce biofuels from renewable sources, says Bernard Henrissat, who is already putting the Novozymes Prize money to good use.
- Winning the prize is such a big recognition, and particularly meaningful to me as my work is with enzymes. I’ll spend the prize money – not put it in a safe! I’ll buy new and better computers to analyze the ever growing number of sequences and diversity in enzyme families. My goal is to create ways to improve functional prediction based on sequences. The goal is to crack the carbohydrate-active enzymes’ code, he says.