Enzymes, serving as biocatalysts, play a pivotal role in advancing greener chemical processes, presenting promising prospects across diverse industries, spanning pharmaceuticals to environmental technology. The integration of new analytical methods, the exponential surge in data volumes, and the application of machine learning techniques have collectively propelled the evolution of biocatalysis.
A collaborative effort led by Prof. Dr. Uwe Bornscheuer from the University of Greifswald and Prof. Dr. Rebecca Buller from ZHAW culminated in a comprehensive review published in the journal Science, encapsulating the recent strides in biocatalysis.
For decades, enzymes have been instrumental in biocatalysis, contributing to the production of semi-synthetic antibiotics, essential building blocks for pharmaceutical ingredients, and foundational chemicals like acrylamide for polymers. The transformative impact of biocatalysis lies in its ability to enhance the efficiency, specificity, and energy conservation of chemical processes, holding promise for the advancement of eco-friendly chemistry and the realization of a circular economy amid energy challenges and climate change.
Over the past five years, the field has witnessed notable breakthroughs, including the advent of bioinformatics tools such as machine learning. These tools facilitate the tailored design of biocatalysts and empower enzymes to perform novel chemical reactions previously unknown in nature. The ingenuity extends to synthesizing complex molecules like starch from carbon dioxide, leveraging a strategic combination of enzymes.
Evolution has finely tuned natural enzymes for metabolic functions, necessitating optimization for industrial applications through protein engineering methods. Recent years have seen significant advancements in this optimization process, leveraging a 20-fold increase in protein sequences stored in public databases and the automatic generation of reliable protein structures. These developments, coupled with machine learning, expedite the adaptation of biocatalysts to meet the demands of industrial processes.
This progress enables the biocatalytic synthesis of intricate drug molecules, exemplified by islatravir for AIDS treatment and therapeutic oligonucleotides. Prof. Dr. Rebecca Buller, the first author of the Science article, emphasizes the expanding practicality of enzyme utilization across diverse domains. She notes, “The rapid evolution of bioinformatic and molecular biological methods is enabling the biocatalytic synthesis of increasingly complex products, teaching enzymes entirely new capabilities.”
Enzyme to break down plastic thanks to protein engineering
Biocatalysis emerges as a crucial tool in addressing the global challenge of plastic waste disposal. A significant breakthrough in 2020 showcased protein engineering methods unveiling a highly efficient esterase capable of recycling PET plastic on an industrial scale.
Prof. Dr. Uwe Bornscheuer highlights the potential of state-of-the-art enzyme engineering methods, as outlined in their review, to pave the way for efficient recycling processes for various plastics in the near future. The collaborative review, penned alongside an international team of authors, encapsulates a decade of pivotal developments in biocatalysis, showcasing impactful applications and offering insights into the field's prospective trajectory.
Beyond the realm of plastic recycling, the authors envision novel applications for enzymes, extending beyond traditional boundaries. These include the synthesis of RNA therapeutics, contributions to gene therapy, and innovative initiatives contributing to resource conservation and climate protection.
In essence, biocatalysis not only holds the key to mitigating plastic waste but also unlocks a realm of possibilities for groundbreaking contributions to diverse fields, ranging from advanced therapeutics to sustainable solutions for global challenges. The future of biocatalysis appears promising, with its transformative potential reaching far beyond the horizons of conventional applications.