Enzymes which operate in cold conditions such as the Antarctic or the Alps could hold the key to a major reduction in energy use in washing machines and other cleaning operations, and in food processing and pharmaceuticals production. The COLDZYME project, funded by the EU's BIOTECH research programme, aims to isolate and characterize such "cold-active enzymes" secreted from bacteria collected in Alpine and Antarctic locations. The catalytic function of any enzyme depends on its ability to stay flexible. Given that most protein molecules work best at temperatures of 40ºC or more, the COLDZYME partners are trying to establish how these Antarctic and Alpine enzymes can operate in the cold. The project coordinator, Dr. Nick Russell of Wye College, London, explains, "They are folded in such a way that they stay flexible at temperatures at which those produced by normal bacteria stop working. If we can find out how, we will be able to engineer low-temperature activity into other enzymes." Some 16 months after the three-year project was launched in December 1996, COLDZYME has made rapid progress towards establishing the technical platform from which a whole range of new products and processes can be developed. Already, the project has succeeded in crystallizing enzymes that degrade starch and protein. As well as looking at modifying enzymes to operate in cold temperatures, the research partners are also studying the possibility of using the bacteria which secrete the enzymes as "cell factories". Success here would enable large quantities of genetically engineered cold-active enzymes to be produced, for use in cold water washing powders or in contact lens cleaning. Other potential applications include the dairy foods processing industry, whilst new biotechnologies could be developed for the pharmaceutical industry.