Going to Extremes
The remarkable speed and precision of enzyme activity is already exploited in a number of different processes. For example, the enzyme glucose isomerase is used to modify corn syrup, converting some of the glucose into fructose, which is much sweeter than glucose. The resulting high-fructose corn syrup is used in the commercial production of a variety of beverages and food products. Other enzymes, including proteases, amylases, and lipases, are used in certain laundry detergents to facilitate stain removal. These enzymes break down proteins, starches, and fats, respectively, which otherwise adhere strongly to fabrics. Similar enzymes are being added to some dishwashing detergents, decreasing the reliance on chlorine bleaching agents and phosphates that can otherwise pollute the environment. Enzymes are also used by the pulp and paper industry to facilitate the bleaching process.
Even with the current successes of enzyme technology, however, only a small fraction of enzymes in nature have been characterized. Recognizing that the field is still in its infancy, some companies are actively searching diverse environments for microorganisms that produce novel enzymes, hoping that some may be commercially valuable. Among the most promising enzymes are those produced by the extremophiles, members of the Archaea that preferentially live in conditions inhospitable to other forms of life. Because these organisms live in severe environments, it is expected that their enzymes can withstand the harsh conditions that characterize certain processes. For example, the enzymes of the extreme thermophiles will likely withstand temperatures that would quickly inactivate enzymes of mesophiles.
With the aid of enzymes, many of which are still to be discovered, scientists may eventually be able to precisely control a greater variety of commercially important chemical processes. This, it is hoped, will result in fewer unwanted by-products and a decreased reliance on harsh chemicals that damage the environment.
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