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Making chemicals the biological way

The use of biological catalysts, enzymes, in the manufacture of chemicals has the potential of giving a 100% yield. Researchers from universities and companies in Austria, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have collaborated to make this concept an industrial reality.

Backgr...
The use of biological catalysts, enzymes, in the manufacture of chemicals has the potential of giving a 100% yield. Researchers from universities and companies in Austria, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands have collaborated to make this concept an industrial reality.

Background

Many complex compounds can exist in two forms: they have the same chemical composition and properties but, being mirror images of one another in molecular structure, they display differences in their biological activity. Synthesising these chemicals by conventional standard procedures produces a 50:50 mixture of both forms and it is very difficult and expensive to separate them.

In nature, the problem does not arise because biological processes are much more specific than chemical ones. An appropriate biological catalyst, an enzyme, yields only one of the two forms. Enzymes thus have the potential to give a 100% yield of the desired product. The European chemical industry could take advantage of this process to make pure compounds for use as drugs and pesticides more economically.

Description, impact and results

A team of researchers from four EU countries pooled their expertise in a European Commission project to employ enzymes to produce pure chemicals. This biotechnology project was part of the European Commission's Life Science programme.

The results of the project, which has recently been completed, included developing a method for producing a particular enzyme - from the leaves of Hevea brasiliensis or rubber tree - in large quantities. The use of this enzyme as a catalyst for organic reactions was been shown to be a general route for producing a large number of important chemical intermediates in excellent yields and purity (>99%). For one such intermediate, which is used to make agrochemicals, an industrial process has been developed and is now in large-scale production.

The work, which has also resulted in several patent applications, will improve the competitiveness of European industry in the rapidly growing global market for pure chemicals in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.

Working partnerships

The project partners from four countries in the EU employed a multidisciplinary approach. Four universities in the fields of organic chemistry and biotechnology collaborated with two chemical companies.

Enzyme separation and characterisation were carried out by Graz University (Austria) and Stuttgart University (Germany), while the reaction kinetics were established by Delft University (the Netherlands). The reaction conditions for using the enzyme in organic solvents was established by Lund University (Sweden). Roche Diagnostics (Germany) designed a process for scaling-up the enzyme production to make large quantities, and DSM Fine Chemicals (Austria) developed a process for using the enzyme in an industrial application.


Source: European Commission, DG XIII/D.4 - Information and dissemination of scientific and technical knowledge

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Biotechnology
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