Enzymes play a central role in the chemistry of living nature. They facilitate our digestion, for example, and often determine the difference between sick or healthy organisms. Professor Willem van Berkel, Professor of Molecular Enzymology at Wageningen University, goes a step further. He expects enzymes to play a key role in the development of a sustainable society.
Based on genes, it can be predicted that there are around 25,000 enzymes. Of these enzymes, only 5,000 have been characterised, so there are a great many that we do not yet know. Of these few thousand, only 1-2% are used for commercial applications and only a handful are used on a large scale.
Enzymes of the future
A well-known group of enzymes are the hydrolases which act as cleaning agents in detergents. Other well-known, common enzymes are oxidative enzymes. These can initiate many kinds of chemical reactions and they are expected to be the enzymes of the future. The aeration of bread, for example, can be changed by adding certain oxidative enzymes to the dough; other enzymes determine the bitterness of chocolate.
Certain oxidative enzymes are responsible for the undesired brown colouring of fruit and vegetable products, juices and wine. Van Berkel: "Sulphite is the well-known additive which helps prevent these aging processes. But this chemical also causes headaches and other health problems. The challenge is therefore to find new 'healthy' enzyme control mechanisms which prevent the oxidation reactions in foodstuffs. In a European joint venture, we are looking at apple and potato products which must have a fresh appearance for the consumer."
Oxidative enzymes also make an important contribution in the medical world. One of the applications is significant for diabetes patients. Based on a plastic strip containing two different oxidative enzymes, it is possible to read whether their sugar level is good.
Professor Van Berkel looks at enzymes from the perspective of the enzyme molecule in order to study how it works. 'This is a fundamental approach from the base and not from the end result." Van Berkel's research lays a basis for a sustainable society. "Plants produce extremely interesting compounds," according to the new professor, "but often in small quantities. Furthermore, these compounds are difficult to isolate. By simulating the biochemical reactions, we can produce the rare substances in larger quantities so that we can test them to find out: what works and what doesn't'?" In the long term, the knowledge thus generated can be used in industry.
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