What are enzymes? Want to learn more?

Enzymes have been used for hundreds of years, and today the use of them is almost without limits – find out what enzymes are and how they work.

Enzymes are the tools of nature

Enzymes cut and paste products such as nutrients. They speed up all vital biological processes. The enzymes in the stomach, for instance, ensure that food is cut into tiny particles that can be converted into energy in the body. Wherever one substance needs to be transformed into another, nature uses enzymes to speed up the process.

Enzymes break down your food

Enzymes are the workhorses of the body. When you eat, enzymes break down the food into tiny particles which can be converted into energy in the body. The process starts in the mouth, where an enzyme called amylase attacks all incoming food particles. Like a well-drilled team of engineers, different enzymes continue to break down the food all the way to the stomach and intestines.

The breakdown of food is an essential part of the conversion of food into energy. Undigested food is unable to pass on the energy stored within it. The enzymes involved in the digestion process carry out the final cutting of the food particles so that they can be easily converted into the essential energy needed by all parts of our body. Without enzymes you would die from starvation, even sitting in the middle of a restaurant waving your gold card.

Enzymes are the body’s own set of tools

Whenever a substance needs to be transformed into another substance, the body uses its own engineers – enzymes. Enzymes can cut biological materials into smaller pieces and paste them together again. They thus break down or build up all life-essential substances within our body.
Enzymes are catalysts. This means that they make biochemical reactions happen faster than they would otherwise. Sometimes the essential reactions would not happen at all without the help of enzymes. Being catalysts also means that enzymes are not part of the final product. They make things happen. When the job is done, enzymes are ready to catalyse a new biochemical reaction.

Every enzyme has a specific function

One of the unique things about enzymes is that they have one function and one function only. Every function or substrate in an organism has its own unique enzyme. The substrate which is to be transformed fits the enzyme like a key in a lock. Only when the right enzyme finds the right substrate can biochemical reactions occur.
The correlation between enzyme and substrate means that you never have to worry about what will happen when enzymes are added to an industrial process. If you are using chemicals as a catalyst, you have to put up with a bundle of side effects because chemicals are non-specific. The chemicals will do their thing to whatever they come across. When an enzyme does the job, there are no side effects. For instance, when enzymes transform starch into sugar, you can be sure that that is all that will happen. No other material or process will be altered or affected.

Enzymes are stable and work in mild conditions

Enzymes are far more stable catalysts than other chemicals or biological molecules. At the same time, enzymes also work at low temperature and moderate pH. This is not the case for most chemicals which perform the same processes. For this reason enzymes are the environmentally friendly solution to industrial problems.
Enzymes are not living organisms; they are simply biological molecules. They do not therefore live or die. They just keep on working until they are dissolved, usually by other enzymes.
That enzymes are catalysts also means that they do not become part of the final product of the biochemical reaction which they are catalysing. When the biochemical reaction is over, the product of the reaction leaves the enzyme. The enzyme is then ready to effect the same reaction on another molecule again and again. Given the right conditions to function, the enzyme can go on and on for as long as needed.

Enzymes are fully biodegradable

Most industries have production waste. When using chemicals, these present a threat to nature. Enzymes can do the same job cheaper and do not threaten the environment. Enzymes are a part of nature and are therefore fully biodegradable. When industrial enzymes have done their job, they leave the production plant with the waste water. The retired enzymes do not last long in the surrounding environment; nature has many microorganisms which easily break down enzymes into single amino acids, which are used to build up life around us. The fact that there are no hazardous waste products makes industrial enzymes the most environmentally friendly solution to most industrial problems.

Proteins are the building blocks of our body

Every part of the human body is built of proteins. Even the largest muscle or the smallest hormone, nerve fibre or enzyme is made up of small protein molecules.
Proteins hence constitute about 80% of the dry weight of muscle, 70% of the dry weight of skin and 90% of the dry weight of blood.
Proteins are the building blocks of all living organisms. Humans, animals, plants and microorganisms are all made up of proteins. In the body, proteins are vital to many cell functions: by way of example, they are responsible for transporting all molecules into and out of cells.

Enzymes are proteins

There are many different kinds of protein, which can basically be split into two groups. The first group covers the structural proteins, which are the main constituents of our bodies. Well-known structural proteins are collagen, which is the protein of bones, tendons and ligaments, and keratin, the protein of nails, hair and feathers.
The second large group of proteins covers the biologically active proteins. Most of these catalyse biochemical reactions in cells. These are enzymes, the heart of Novozymes’ business.
All known enzymes are proteins and can occur in the body in very small amounts. All the same, enzymes catalyse all processes in the body, enabling organisms to build up chemical substances such as other proteins, carbohydrates or fats that are necessary for life.
In short, all enzymes are proteins, but not all proteins are enzymes. If a protein can catalyse a biochemical reaction, it is an enzyme.

Enzymes consist of long strings of amino acids

Like all other proteins, enzymes are made of amino acids. Each enzyme is made of between a hundred and upwards of a million amino acids placed like pearls on a string. Each amino acid is bonded to the next by chemical bonds. The vast majority of enzymes are made of only 20 different kinds of amino acid. The structure and function of the enzyme is determined by the order of the amino acids. No two enzymes are alike. Each enzyme has its own unique sequence of amino acids, which is determined by the genes in the cells.

Enzymes have a three-dimensional structure

Enzymes consist of millions of amino acids placed one after the other like pearls on a long string. Most enzymes, however, do not look like a long string of amino acids. In most enzymes the string is coiled and folded thousands of times to form a highly complex three-dimensional structure. It is the chemical interactions between the amino acids that force the enzymes into their three-dimensional structure, which is held together by the many different links between the different amino acids.

The arrangement of amino acids determines the enzyme’s function

Each enzyme has its own unique three-dimensional structure that determines the function of the enzyme. The three-dimensional structure of enzymes is determined by the order of the amino acids in the coiled string. Even slight changes in the sequence of the amino acids on the string have a huge impact on the structure of the protein. With just one or perhaps a few amino acids replaced or switched, an enzyme may not only look different, but also act different. With only a slight change in the sequence of the amino acids, an enzyme may be converted into working on other biological molecules or treating them differently.

Enzymes have active sites

Enzymes are large molecules with hundreds of amino acids. Only a small part of the enzyme participates in the catalysis of biochemical reactions: this is called the active site. The three-dimensional structure of the enzyme determines the appearance of the active site. The active site accommodates the shape of the biological substrate that requires transformation. They fit like a key in a lock. This is what makes enzymes specific in their actions. Only substances of the right shape will be transformed.