Enzymes from Lund set to take over the world

Enzymes developed in Lund could be used in university and industry labs worldwide in the future. This is what Professor Eva Nordberg Karlsson hopes; her research group has signed a contract with an Icelandic biotech company that is going to sell their products.

Eva Nordberg Karlsson

Eva Nordberg Karlsson wants to give other researchers reliable access to enzymes. Photo: Ingela Björck

The contract is the result of an EU project involving collaboration between countries including Sweden and Iceland. The aim is to help get environmentally friendly researchers and industry on the right track.

“We get a cut from sales by the Icelandic company, but I hardly think we’re going to make any large sums. That’s not why we want to sell our enzymes. Our motivation is giving other researchers all over the world useful tools for their work”, says Professor of Biotechnology Eva Nordberg Karlsson.

Enzymes are proteins that set off or speed up chemical reactions. They are found in many variants in the natural world and are also often used in the food industry.

There are even more areas of application on the horizon, when society has to be weaned off its dependence on crude oil. Biorefineries could be a partial solution – plants where raw materials from agriculture and forestry are converted into more advanced products, in the same way as crude oil in an oil refinery. It is a good idea if the raw materials are things that are currently regarded as waste products, such as cereal husks, onion skin, straw and bark.

Enzymes are a hot topic in the research community. However, despite many articles being written on enzymes, there are few enzymes available to buy for research purposes. Instead, all labs develop their own products, which makes the supply unpredictable.

”Of course you can write to a colleague and ask to buy a few micrograms of a certain interesting enzyme. But that researcher may later alter the focus of his or her research, and the enzyme will no longer be available. We therefore want to give other researchers the opportunity of reliable access to the enzymes that we have developed”, explains Eva Nordberg Karlsson.

The enzymes from Lund have a number of possible areas of application. One is developing ‘prebiotics’ – carbohydrates that benefit good, healthy gut flora. Another is antioxidants that can improve the shelf-life of biological raw materials, such as oils. This includes both transformer oil for technical uses and cooking oil for use in the home or the food industry, where antioxidants are added to prevent the oil becoming rancid.

The human body is full of enzymes, but micro-organisms that live in different environments have completely different enzymes. This is why they can live on things that to us are waste products and refuse, and they can therefore also withstand extreme environments such as cold seas or hot springs.

The process of developing useful enzymes often begins with studying a micro-organism from an extremely hot environment. Bacteria from hot springs on Iceland are one example: if the enzyme can withstand the water of a hot spring, it will probably also withstand industrial boiling processes.

If an interesting enzyme is found in such a bacteria, the next step is using genetic engineering to get a familiar and easy-to-handle organism such as yeast to produce the enzyme.

”Production is a common bottleneck in this field. If we cannot develop a quick and simple production process, the new enzyme becomes far too expensive. For the enzymes that are now being sold via Iceland, we have managed to establish cost-effective production”, says Eva Nordberg Karlsson.

Ingela Björck

FOOTNOTE: The Icelandic biotech company is called Prokazyme ehf. The EU project that led to the collaboration is called Amylomics, http://amylomics.org.

Onion skin and tree bark produce healthy substances

Eva Nordberg Karlsson and her research group have not only developed useful enzymes; they have also tested them in different contexts. This took place within the EU project Suretech, which was led by LU colleague Charlotta Turner.

The aim of Suretech has been to develop environmental methods to extract useful substances from agricultural and forestry waste. One such waste product is birch bark, from which betulin has been successfully extracted, which can be used in skin creams, among other areas. From another type of waste, onion skin, the antioxidant quercetin has been extracted, which increases the shelf-life of both foods and cosmetics.

Strong chemical solvents are otherwise commonly used for this type of extraction, but these are not needed with Suretech’s methods. All that are used are enzymes, pressurised hot water and carbon dioxide, which means that the waste from the process can be incinerated or composted without risk of a toxic material being released.