Enzyme, a substance that acts as a catalyst in living organisms, regulating the rate at which chemical reactions proceed without itself being altered in the process.

The biological processes that occur within all living organisms are chemical reactions, and most are regulated by enzymes. Without enzymes, many of these reactions would not take place at a perceptible rate. Enzymes catalyze all aspects of cell metabolism.

Chemical nature of enzymes

All enzymes were once thought to be proteins, but since the 1980s the catalytic ability of certain nucleic acids, called ribozymes (or catalytic RNAs), has been demonstrated, refuting this axiom. Because so little is yet known about the enzymatic functioning of RNA, this discussion will focus primarily on protein enzymes.

A large protein enzyme molecule is composed of one or more amino acid chains called polypeptide chains. The amino acid sequence determines the characteristic folding patterns of the protein’s structure, which is essential to enzyme specificity. If the enzyme is subjected to changes, such as fluctuations in temperature or pH, the protein structure may lose its integrity (denature) and its enzymatic ability. Denaturation is sometimes, but not always, reversible.

Bound to some enzymes is an additional chemical component called a cofactor, which is a direct participant in the catalytic event and thus is required for enzymatic activity. A cofactor may be either a coenzyme—an organic molecule, such as a vitamin—or an inorganic metal ion; some enzymes require both. A cofactor may be either tightly or loosely bound to the enzyme. If tightly connected, the cofactor is referred to as a prosthetic group.

Impact of temperature on Enzymes

As the temperature increases, so does the rate of reaction. But very high temperatures denature enzymes. The graph shows the typical change in an enzyme’s activity with increasing temperature. The enzyme activity gradually increases with temperature until around 37ºC, or body temperature. Then, as the temperature continues to rise, the rate of reaction falls rapidly, as heat energy denatures the enzyme.


Industrial applications of Enzymes

Enzymes are used in the chemical industry and other industrial applications when extremely specific catalysts are required. However, enzymes in general are limited in the number of reactions they have evolved to catalyze, and by their lack of stability in organic solvents and at high temperatures. As a consequence, protein engineering is an active area of research and involves attempts to create new enzymes with novel properties, either through rational design or in vitro evolution. These efforts have begun to be successful, and a few enzymes have now been designed “from scratch” to catalyze reactions that do not occur in nature.

In food processing, the enzymes used include amylases from fungi and plants. These enzymes are used in the production of sugars from starch, such as in making high-fructose corn syrup. In baking, they catalyze the breakdown of starch in the flour to sugar. Yeast fermentation of sugar produces the carbon dioxide that raises the dough. Proteases are used by biscuit manufacturers to lower the protein level of flour. Trypsin is used to predigest baby foods. For the processing of fruit juices, cellulases and pectinases are used to clarify fruit juices. Papain is used to tenderize meat for cooking.

In the dairy industry, rennin, derived from the stomachs of young ruminant animals (like calves and lambs) is used to manufacture of cheese, used to hydrolyze protein. Lipases are implemented during the production of Roquefort cheese to enhance the ripening of the blue-mold cheese. Lactases are used to break down lactose to glucose and galactose.

In the brewing industry, enzymes from barley are released during the mashing stage of beer production. They degrade starch and proteins to produce simple sugar, amino acids, and peptides that are used by yeast for fermentation. Industrially-produced barley enzymes are widely used in the brewing process to substitute for the natural enzymes found in barley. Amylase, glucanases, and proteases are used to split polysaccharides and proteins in the malt. Betaglucanases and arabinoxylanases are used to improve the wort and beer filtration characteristics. Amyloglucosidase and pullulanases are used for low-calorie beer and adjustment of fermentability. Proteases are used to remove cloudiness produced during storage of beers.

In the starch industry, amylases, amyloglucosideases, and glucoamylases convert starch into glucose and various syrups. Glucose isomerase converts glucose into fructose in production of high-fructose syrups from starchy materials.  In the paper industry, amylases, xylanases, cellulases, and ligninases are used to degrade starch to lower viscosity, aiding sizing and coating paper.  In the biofuel industry, cellulases used to break down cellulose into sugars that can be fermented.

In the production of biological detergents, proteases, produced in an extracellular form from bacteria, are used in pre-soak conditions and direct liquid applications, helping with the removal of protein stains from clothes.  In molecular biology, restriction enzymes, DNA ligase, and polymerases are used to manipulate DNA in genetic engineering, important in pharmacology, agriculture and medicine, and are essential for restriction digestion and the polymerase chain reaction. Molecular biology is also important in forensic science.


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