What is biotechnology?
Biotechnology could be traced back to thousands of years ago, when human started to use yeaststo make liquor. This may be the first dawn of biotechnology in food production. Along with the development of natural and social sciences, nowadays, biotechnology carries more colorfulmeanings.
In the modern world, biotechnology often refers to the process of making or modifying products using living systems or organisms. Besides the traditional fermentation, biotechnological tools haveexpanded to employ more advanced sciences, such as genetic engineering, applied immunology, and medicinal therapies and diagnostic. Among these tools, a variety of enzymes are indispensable—they may appear as hammers and chisels to help accomplish molecular biology experiments, or they may act as efficient micro-reactors in industrial production. They exist everywhere andresemble all kinds of functions in living cells or in harsh environments bearing no life. As of today, people exploit their functions in great details for better uses in biotechnology.
Enzymes in the applications of biotechnology.
• Enzymes in food production
A majority of drinks and foods in our daily lives are dependent on the food production industry. The transformation of milk to cheese, grains to alcohol, fruits to juice, and flour to breads all rely on the reactions catalyzed by enzymes. Because of the “green chemistry” characterized by enzymatic catalysis, these reactions can be used to produce food grade products while avoiding residues of harmful substances. As a result, using enzymatic biotechnology in food production has been rapidly developed. In addition to the superior catalytic activity, high selectivity of enzymes is another deeply admired merit. For example, maltose is a disaccharide composed of two units of glucose, which has many structurally similar isomers. Traditionally, it was almost impossible to separate maltose from its isomers, and mixture of these isomers were used as one raw material, making quality control difficult. Now, enzymes can specifically transform each isomer to different molecules, meeting different needs in flavoring, nutrition, chemistry, and pharmaceuticals. Especially, trehalose synthase only reacts with maltose and converts it to trehalose, which is used as food additive and biological agent.
• Enzymes in medical research and agriculture
The rapid development of technologies in gene engineering allows modifications of biological activities at molecular levels. Biotechnology in medical research and agriculture becomes a busy area. Enzymes have various roles in medical research, including new drug development, disease treatment, and diagnosis or prognosis. Enzymes can also be applied to assay kits, such as coupled multi-enzyme assay kits and enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) kits, to conveniently conduct tests and diagnosis. In agriculture, enzymes help with the preservation of agricultural products, quickly respond to quality inspection of residues, and more recently, get involved in crop modifications to fight extreme climates and increase the food output.
• Enzymes in chemical industry
Chemical reactions often take place under harsh conditions or accompanied with intense heating and massive waste production. However, enzymatic catalysis is far more mild and efficient. Therefore, using enzymatic biotechnology in the chemical industry becomes the more recent trend. In recent years, efforts on finding new enzymes with chiral resolution capability have aroused great interests. Traditional chemical reactions often give racemic mixturesas products, but in most cases, only one chiral configuration is valuable, while ones are considered as impurities or even hazardous wastes. A well-known disastrous example is “Thalidomide”, which was used as a mixture of two chiral isomers. Unfortunately one isomer has a severe adverse effect and resulted in phocomelia of the new-born, as later found by scientists. Enzymes can easily achieve chiral resolution; thus, solve the problem that is greatly challenging to the traditional chemical method.
• Enzymes in environment protection
Nowadays, environment issues grow worse and become a global concern. Scientists hope to reduce pollutions caused by petroleum and its byproduct in a clean and sustainable way. It has been found that some microorganisms have the right enzymes to degrade petroleum, break down the hydrocarbon chain to smaller fragments, which would help with cleaning oil spills and recycling waste oils. Furthermore, recent research revealed that some enzymes efficiently convert natural products such as soybean and corn oils into biofuels, which would also reduce carbon emission in the future. Enzymes can also alleviate soil and water pollution without generating new wastes. Therefore, enzymes carry researchers’ hope to keep the balance between environment and development.