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 Home About Us Know Enzymes History

History of Enzymes

The history of modern enzyme technology really began in 1874 when the Danish chemist Christian Hansen produced the first specimen of rennet by extracting dried calves' stomachs with saline solution. Apparently this was the first enzyme preparation of relatively high purity used for industrial purposes.

This significant event had been preceded by a lengthy evolution. Enzymes have been used by man throughout the ages, either in the form of vegetables rich in enzymes, or in the form of microorganisms used for a variety of purposes, for instance in brewing processes, in baking, and in the production of alcohol. It is generally known that enzymes were already used in the production of cheese since old times.

Even though the action of enzymes has been recognised and enzymes have been used throughout history, it was quite recently that their importance were realised. Enzymatic processes, particularly fermentation, were the focus of numerous studies in the 19th century and many valuable discoveries in this field were made. A particularly important experiment was the isolation of the enzyme complex from malt by Payen and Persoz in 1833. This extract, like malt itself, converts gelatinised starch into sugars, primarily into maltose, and was termed 'diastase'.

Development progressed during the following decades, particularly in the field of fermentation where the achievements by Schwann, Liebig, Pasteur and Kuhne were of the greatest importance. The dispute between Liebig and Pasteur concerning the fermentation process caused much heated debate. Liebig claimed that fermentation resulted from chemical process and that yeast was a non­viable substance continuously in the process of breaking down. Pasteur, on the other hand, argued that fermentation did not occur unless viable organisms were present.

The dispute was finally settled in 1897, after the death of both adversaries, when the Buchner brothers demonstrated that cell free yeast extract could convert glucose into ethanol and carbon dioxide just like viable yeast cells. In other words, the conversion was not ascribable to yeast cells as such, but to their non­viable enzymes.

In 1876, William Kuhne proposed that the name 'enzyme' be used as the new term to denote phenomena previously known as 'unorganised ferments', that is, ferments isolated from the viable organisms in which they were formed. The word itself means 'in yeast' and is derived from the Greek 'en' meaning 'in', and 'zyme' meaning 'yeast' or 'leaven'.

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Early developments in Japan

During the early part of this century, enzyme technology was also developing slowly but surely outside Europe. In the Far East, an age-old tradition prevailed where mould fungi, the so-called koji, were (and still are) used in the production of certain foodstuffs and flavour additives based on soya protein (shoyu, miso, tempeh) and fermented beverages (sake, alcohol). Koji is prepared from steamed rice into which a mixture of mould fungi is inoculated, the composition of the mixture being passed down from generation to generation. This formed the basis which the Japanese scientist Takamine developed a fermentation process for the industrial production of fungal amylase; the process included the culture of Aspergillus oryzae on moist rice or wheat bran. The product was called 'Takadiastase' and it is still used as a digestive aid. The method of fermentation suggested by Takamine, the 'surface culture' or 'semi­solid culture’ is still actively used in the production of various enzymes.

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Textile Desizing

At about the same time as Takamine was developing his novel fermentation technique, another field was being opened up for the use of enzymes - the desizing of textiles. Previously, textiles were treated with acid, alkali or oxidising agents, or soaked in water for several days so that naturally occurring microorganisms could break down the starch. However, both of these methods were difficult to control and sometimes damaged or discoloured the material. It represented great progress, therefore, when crude enzyme extracts in the form of malt extract, or later, in the form of pancreas extract, were first used to carry out desizing.

Bacterial amylase derived from Bacillus subtilis was used for desizing, the first time by Boidin and Effront as early as 1917.

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Leather Bating

Investigations carried out by the German chemist and industrial magnate Otto Rohm before World War I were of great importance for the further development of the industrial use of enzymes. Among other things, he studied the so called 'bating' process, a step in the preparation of hides and skins prior to tanning.

According to tradition, bating required the excrement of dogs and pigeons, a fact that did not improve the image of tanning which was considered a stinking and unpleasant activity. Rohm's theory was that these excrements exerted their effect because they contained residual amounts of the animals' digestive enzymes. If this was so, it might be possible to use extracts of the pancreas directly for bating. Such extracts were tried and produced the expected positive results. Naturally, Rohm accepted this as confirmation of the correctness of his theory, but later experiments showed that it was not the animals' enzymes that were active, but rather enzymes of bacteria growing in the intestinal tract.

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The first detergent enzyme

Parallel to his studies of the problems involved in tanning, Rohm investigated other processes where enzymes would prove even more valuable. Nevertheless, his efforts were not to score a success until 50 years later. Rohm actually developed the first method for washing protein stained cloth in detergents containing enzymes and manufactured the first detergent preparation containing enzymes.

The enzyme preparation used was pancreatin (extracted from pancreatic glands), which contains the protein degrading enzyme trypsin.

Breakthrough in detergents was made in 1959, when a Swiss chemist Dr. Jaag, developed a new product called Bio 40 containing a bacterial protease instead of trypsin.

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Sugars from starch

A very important field in which enzymes have proved to be of great value over the last 15-20 years is the starch industry. In 1950s, fungal amylase was used in the manufacture of specific types of syrup, i.e., those containing a range of sugars, which could not be produced by conventional acid hydrolysis. The real turning point was reached early in the 1960s when an enzyme glucoamylase, was launched for the first time, which could completely break down starch into glucose. Within a few years, almost all glucose production was re­organised and enzyme hydrolysis was used instead of acid hydrolysis because of the more benefits such as greater yield, higher degree of purity and easier crystallisation.

The process was further improved by the introduction of a new technique used for the enzymatic pre-treatment (liquefaction) of starch by using a heat-stable alpha amylase.

Years of research in biochemistry and biotechnology have boosted knowledge of enzymes for industries as well as research. Many new techniques have been established to modify enzymes or increase their yields. New techniques for purification of enzymes are constantly developing and so are being discovered new application of enzymes in medicine, research and industries.

The success and importance of using enzymes in a variety of modern industrial processes is illustrated by the applications described under Enzymes section





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