Enzymes are protein molecules that are prevalent in all forms of life. They take care of all the reactions in our bodies: from a healthy digestive system to regulating our blood pressure and the removal of toxins. Enzymes can also be used in the chemical industry to control all kinds of processes. But what exactly do enzymes do?
Enzymes are ace at accelerating chemical reactions. When they come in direct contact with a certain substance, they turn it into a different compound in no time. They are nature’s catalysers – many thousands of times quicker and more efficient than chemical catalysers. That’s why enzymes are terribly interesting for the chemical industry. They’re extracted from bacteria, fungi and plants for use in all kinds of applications: for the production of anti-hypertensions medication and antibiotics but also to bleach jeans.
We research how chemical warfare between man and bacteria actually takes place
Currently, practically all chemical products are derived from petroleum but we’re running out of petroleum. Besides, it’s bad for the environment. Biomass is an alternative and with enzymes you can extract all kinds of compounds from biomass. Subsequently, these compounds can be used as building blocks for all kinds of products: from plastic and paint to detergents. The production process is more eco-friendly because you get left with less waste and you need less components that cause pollution. Enzymes also allow you to produce more quickly, making the entire production process a lot cheaper.
However, so far it has been difficult to use enzymes on a large-scale in the industry. They’re very sensitive to temperature changes and they easily break down – especially in the extreme conditions as we see in the industry. We study how we can improve enzymes. We do this by genetically modifying the specific gene that contains the enzyme’s code. Next, we measure the change in its behaviour. We tend to use very many variations of an enzyme, it runs in the thousands. It’s difficult to measure how well all these variations work. Often we use a colour reaction to determine this. But in most cases, a suitable colour reaction isn’t available. That’s why we use heat measurements to measure an enzyme’s chemical reaction. Theoretically, this should work for every enzyme and every type of chemical reaction.
One field of research is the combination of enzymes and metals. The metals, in the form of ions, make up part of the enzymes and proteins in our bodies. Like the iron that’s in the haemoglobin in our blood, for instance. If we fall ill due to a bacterial infection, these bacteria also need metals for their enzymes and proteins. They try to take these metals from us but that’s exactly what our immune system tries to prevent. And in turn, the bacteria react again. How this exactly works isn’t quite clear yet. We’ve developed a method to measure to which proteins and enzymes these metals attach. This way, we can find out how chemical warfare between man and bacteria actually takes place and we hope to find new ‘targets’ to develop an antibiotic against the MRSA bacteria, for example.
Researching enzymes can help us to develop new antibiotics against bacteria.
I study enzymes. With these proteins you can accelerate all kinds of production processes in the chemical industry. But you can also tackle bacterial infections. This is sorely needed because the current antibiotics aren’t sufficient in all cases. I really want to continue this research but I need funding. Can you help us move on?