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ROBOX – Expanding the use of biocatalysis in industrial processes

Many industrial processes make use of chemical catalysts and solvents, not to mention hazardous materials, toxic substances and precious metals. But in some cases, it is possible to use biocatalysts – enzymes – to drive such processes instead. This is safer, less costly and much more environmentally friendly. If more enzymes could be found or ‘engineered’ to replace conventional chemicals on a larger scale, this would be a great advance in making industry sustainable. With DSM’s extensive expertise in biocatalysis, it is not surprising that the company is playing an important role in an EU project set up to explore this idea.

Practical role for DSM

The project, called ROBOX, forms part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 Programme for Research and Innovation. It brings together an interdisciplinary team of 19 European partners, a unique combination of top experts and facilities. Some will work on identifying and engineering a relevant enzyme. Others will then produce and test it on a small scale. DSM, together with other industry partners, will focus on applying it within an industrial process to make real commercial products. Finally, the results will be evaluated, including in terms of their sustainability benefits.

Multifunctional enzymes

Every form of life depends on thousands of different molecular ‘machines’, known as enzymes. They enable and speed up biochemical reactions that help us digest food and produce energy for our bodies. Without them, we simply wouldn’t exist. But enzymes are not just crucial in living organisms. Nowadays, they’re also used for all sorts of products and processes. Certain medicines, biofuels, beers and soft drinks couldn’t be produced without them.

During the making of these products, the necessary biochemical reactions depend on enzymes. In fact, each biochemical process requires a very specific enzyme, and only works with that exact one. Crucially for product developers, there are now scientific techniques in place for studying enzymes at molecular level. This makes it possible to identify enzymes that can be used for industrial processes.

The art of enzyme engineering

However, finding the enzyme with the right activity is not always enough. Products are usually made in factories, at high temperatures or in other harsh conditions, while enzymes, having themselves evolved in a natural environment, often do not tolerate these conditions. To overcome this issue, changes would have to be made to the structure of enzymes. For many years, this seemed impossible, but scientists have recently succeeded in doing just this – making enzymes more robust and specific, and speeding up their reactions. This is what we call ‘enzyme engineering’.

Proteins

Enzymes are proteins, and are typically composed of a few hundred amino acids. These amino acids contain an average of around 20 atoms each. A specific enzyme’s unique 3D structure is therefore highly complex, as it is built up of thousands of precisely positioned atoms. The power of an enzyme lies in the exact shape or form of its structure. Through enzyme engineering, we can change these structures, at atomic level, in order to help them adapt to a certain environment or to improve catalytic performance.

ROBOX

But even with the current knowledge and techniques available, turning an existing enzyme into a well-oiled machine that is perfectly suited to industrial processes is still a major challenge. This is the challenge that is being taken up by the ROBOX project.

The project focuses particularly on engineering robust enzymes that can be used in oxidation processes (hence the name ROBOX). Oxidative enzymes use oxygen to perform chemical reactions, and have already proven to be valuable for the production of antibiotics. These very selective enzymes can replace other chemical processes currently used in industry, reducing the need for hazardous materials, precious metals and toxic chemicals.

Towards a new landscape

So far, only a few oxidative enzymes are available for industrial use. But this will change as these rare but powerful enzymes become more common. With them, we can expect to see improved industrial processes, new pharmaceuticals and nutritional ingredients, as well as stronger materials. We can also expect such processes to bring substantial reductions in costs, the use of energy and chemicals, and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. No wonder that many scientists believe these tiny, efficient ‘molecular machines’ will radically change the landscape of industry as we know it…

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