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ENZUP — Result In Brief

Project ID: 32877
Funded under: FP6-SME

Bacteria and enzymes team up to produce perfect wool

Genetically engineered enzymes for wool treatment produce a modified, natural fibre that does not shrink or bobble and will take up dye at low temperature without fibre damage.
Bacteria and enzymes team up to produce perfect wool
Wool as a natural fibre is warm, and more resistant to tearing and combustion than its synthetic counterparts. However, the consumer veers away from wool largely due to its tendency to shrink on washing and become like felt, a process known as felting shrinkage. Chlorination will remedy shrinking but is unacceptable due to organic chloride contamination of wastewater.

An EU-funded project, 'Enzymatic up-grading of wool fibres' (ENZUP) has combined genetic engineering expertise with conventional enzyme treatment to come up with a finishing treatment so a woollen garment will come out of the washing machine the way it went in.

Proteolytic enzymes improve shrink resistance as they break down the fibre but their small size means that they can continue 'munching' deep into the wool structure and cause actual damage. The principle behind the engineering is simple, make the enzyme bigger and it is unable to penetrate the fibre physically and cause damage. Not only has ENZUP chemically produced three different sizes of protease, but the researchers unravelled the mechanics behind the enzyme treatment and its effect on the surface of the wool fibres.

Building on the research success, ENZUP has also refined the engineering approach by producing subtilisin, a high molecular weight enzyme. Combining a DNA sequence for prosubtilisin from the bacterium Bacilus subtilis with another gene, the team produced an elastin-like polymer. As the name suggests, elastin is the protein that makes human skin and other tissues elastic.

The result is a battery of enzymes that can be used for specific purposes including wool anti-felting treatment, reduction of pilling (those annoying bobbles that have to be shaved or pulled off) and low temperature dyeing without damaging wool fibres. ENZUP has made the enzyme more stable by combining it with a Eudragit® polymer and so can be incorporated into detergent designed for wool care and stain removal.

ENZUP enzymes have a wide application in the wool and clothing industry. Finished or treated wool will be able to command a higher market value and that woollen jumper will remain softer for much, much longer.

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