A recent press release from the UK's bio-research funding organization, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, more concisely known as the BBSRC, suggested that a newly discovered enzyme might be useful in liquefying wood to create biofuels. As well it might.

There have been countless announcements of enzymatic breakthroughs during the last couple of decades especially as protein sequencing and genetic engineering technology has advanced. I remember attending a week-long course on biotransformations, or bioconversions as they now seem to be referred to, back in the early 1990s at Exeter University.
Some of the now well-known names in enzymes and biotech gave talks and clued up the delegates on how to find and modify specific enzymes for specific chemical tasks.

Despite, the significant advances made, it always seemed to me as a lowly chemist that enzymes were messy critters, too bio for the conventional laboratory. But, then second thoughts arise and one remembers beer production (inevitable as a hot weekend approaches) and how fundamentally that is an enzyme-driven biotransformation with whole-cell organisms, yeast. Sugar to ethanol, we've been doing it for millennia and very well. So, maybe we are indeed at the cusp of a biotransformation revolution, yet more breakthroughs, ground-breaking advances...

There are numerous biotransformations available to chemists and biotechnologists. Many of them do use whole-cells systems or isolated and/or mutant enzymes to convert feedstocks from plants often into nothing more or less exciting than ethanol or other small molecules for production of, as mentioned biofuels. But, some are used to convert waste products from various industries, often the food industry, into compost-type materials. But, there are also bioconversions available for extracting latent value from less "organic" waste materials including paper, vehicle tires, construction materials and of course, sewage and industrial waste water.

The list seems to be endless and growing with modified microbial cells acting as factories, their enzymes tweaked into activation for specific parts of a chemical synthesis or transformation. There are also some intriguing developments that might pique the interest of polymer scientists. Enzymes that can digest synthetic polymers are being formed into active "inks" and printed on to polymer surfaces after which they eat their way through the upper layers of the material. This allows it to be patterned in ways not possible with conventional approaches that use high-temperatures or harsh solvents to etch more rugged materials such as crystalline silicon.

One can imagine that with genetic modification there is the potential to find or develop an enzyme to transform almost any starting material into a specific, designer compound.

Further reading


David Bradley blogs at http://www.sciencebase.com and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".