Biocatalysis: How nature comes to the rescue

Oftentimes, chemical reactions do not occur spontaneously. Thus, chemical processes employ a catalyst including biocatalysis which can be considered as a “reaction booster” acting at the molecular level. Commonly encountered catalysts include those applied to our car’s exhaust systems making possible the conversion of pollutants to less toxic gases. While this example makes catalysts sound environmentally friendly, most of them have a non-negligible impact on the environment. They can lack efficiency, they are not always recyclable, their preparation can be laborious, energy-consuming, and generate toxic wastes along the way. (1) 

That is when nature comes to the rescue! Within living organisms are found enzymes which play a vital role by catalyzing many reactions. Their structure and chemical composition are such that these proteins-based biomolecules have the ability to speed up reactions up to a million times faster than it would have been without it. While the first use of isolated enzymes as catalysts dates back to the nineteenth century, recent efforts have been undertaken to develop biocatalysis into a mature technology in an attempt to increase the efficiency of chemical processes while addressing current environmental issues.  (2)

As a representative example in the field can be cited the enzymes glycohydrolases that, due to their inherent selectivity, brought tremendous efficacy gains to the carbohydrate/glycans synthesis as compared to the conventional acid-catalyzed pathways (3).  This example is of high relevance especially nowadays with the current Corona crisis as anti-viral drugs and vaccines are linked to carbohydrate chemistry. In view of the large panel of applications, in case you have not yet encountered chitin in your everyday life (allergic to seafood?), be aware that this crustacean-derived compound is becoming inescapable!

Many challenges remain to be tackled in biocatalysis, but we are excited to see further contribution of the fast-advancing field of enzyme engineering to industrial progress in the next decades! 

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Written by Anne Kokel.

Anne is a Technology Scout at TechScout

[1] Centi, G.; Ciambelli, P.; Perathoner, S.; Russo, P. Environmental catalysis: trends and outlook. Catalysis Today 2002, 75, 3-15.

[2] Narancic, T.; Davis, R.; Nikodinovic-Runic, J.; O’Connor, K. E. Recent developments in biocatalysis beyond the laboratory. Biotechnol. Lett. 2015, 37, 943-954.

[3] Wu, S.; Snajdrova, R.; Moore, J. C.; Baldenius, K.; Bornscheuer, U. T. Biocatalysis: Enzymatic Synthesis for Industrial Applications. Angewandte Chemie-International Edition 2021, 60, 88-119.

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