Enzymes: Brief History and Advancements – The Catalysts Group

Enzymes: Brief History and Advancements

Since ages, enzymes have been employed in a variety of applications such as beer and cheese production. In the past and some cases now also, enzymes have been derived from natural sources such as the tissue of plants and animals; the enclosed table summarizes these. But Over the years, with varied tools of the lovely field of biotechnology; it resulted in highly efficient varieties of enzymes.

The industrial success of enzymes can be attributed to certain key benefits that enzymes offer in comparison with chemicals. The combination of catalytic function, specificity, and the ability to work under reasonably mild conditions makes enzymes the preferred catalyst in a variety of applications.

Industrial enzymes are prepared and commercialized as partly purified or ‘bulk’ enzymes, as opposed to highly purified enzymes for analytical or diagnostic use. Industrial enzymes may be derived from a wide variety of plant, animal, or microbial sources, although most production processes rely on microbial sources.

Microbial enzymes are either extracellular, such as the proteases and carbohydrates, which account for a large proportion of total sales, or intracellular, such as glucose oxidase. Intracellular enzymes usually remain associated with the cell and therefore must be released unless the microorganism itself is used as the catalyst.

Table: Enzymes widely sourced from animals and plants used in food manufacturing technology.



Enzyme Source Action in food Food applications
Alpha Amylase Cereal seeds, e.g.

wheat, barley

Starch hydrolysis to oligosaccharides Bread making, brewing (malting)
Beta-Amylase Sweet potato Starch hydrolysis to maltose Production of high malt syrups
Papain Latex of unripe papaya fruit Food and beverage protein hydrolysis Meat tenderization, chill haze prevention in beer
Bromelain Pineapple juice and stem Muscle and connective tissue protein hydrolysis Meat tenderization
Ficin Fig fruit latex As bromelain As bromelain and papain but not widely used due to cost
Trypsin Bovine/porcine Food protein hydrolysis Production of hydrolyzates for food flavouring (mostly replaced now by microbial proteinases)


The real breakthrough of enzymes occurred with the introduction of microbial proteases into washing powders. The first commercial bacterial, Bacillus protease was marketed in 1959 and the first major detergent manufacturer started to use it around 1963. The industrial enzyme producers sell enzymes for a wide variety of applications.

The estimated value of the world market is presently about US$ 2.2 billion. Detergents (30%), textiles (12%), starch (12%), baking (11%), biofuel (9%), and animal feed (8%) are the main industrial applications, which use about >80% of industrially produced enzymes.

Industrial enzymes represent the heart of biotechnology. Advancements in biotechnology and genomics have aided the discovery of fresh enzyme sources and production strains for commercialization. The operating conditions and performance of enzyme candidates can be tuned to provide the desired performance, Enzymes can be used not only for chemical processes, but also for mechanical and physical processes.

An example of a chemical reaction is the use of amylases to replace acid in the hydrolysis of starch. The use of cellulose-degrading or modifying enzymes instead of pumice stone for the abrasion of denim is a perfect example of enzymes replacing a mechanical process. Employing protease enzymes, one can easily perform physical processes such as high-temperature resistance for laundry cleaning.

With advances in biotechnology, the horizon of enzyme applications is getting broader day by day. Enzymes are now being used in newer processes that could compete with synthetic processes which were previously not commercially viable. For example, several companies are nowadays developing newer enzymes that could convert cellulosic biomass into ethanol to be blended in fuels.

Other examples include the use of enzyme technology when making sugars from starch, which helped turn high fructose corn syrup production into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Most industrial enzymes are produced by modified microorganisms (by recombinant DNA techniques) for the following reasons:

  • Higher expression levels.
  • Higher purity (% enzyme protein vs. % other components).
  • Cheaper production due to the above.
  • Recombinant DNA techniques open the door to engineering the enzyme protein.
  • Enzymes can be expressed which originate from organisms that have low expression
  • levels of which are pathogenic.

Protein engineering (item 4 in the list above) can improve enzymes concerning, for example, oxidation resistance, improved processing tolerance, changed substrate specificity, improved thermostability and improved storage stability, for example, in detergent systems containing bleach agents.

Recombinant DNA techniques may open the door to the application of enzymes from so-called extremophiles. These are microorganisms which can, in contrast to mesophiles, grow under extreme conditions. Such organisms grow under the following conditions:

  • Thermophiles (high temperature > 90°C stability)
  • Psychrophiles (extreme low temperatures, 0°C or lower)
  • Thermoacidophiles (high temperature, low pH)
  • Barophiles (high pressure)
  • Halophiles (high concentrations of salt)
  • Alkaliphiles (high pH)
  • Acidophiles (low pH)

It can be imagined that such organisms either produce a different range of enzymes than mesophiles, or produce enzymes with extreme characteristics, such as temperature or stability and activity at extreme pH values.

Source: Enzymes in Food technology

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