Upgrading natural tools to create a more sustainable, efficient and affordable chemical industry
Nature has been humanity’s source of inspiration since the beginning of time. In it we have found the most clever solutions, such as velcro, water filters, airplanes… Even the concept of wheel has perhaps been inspired by dung beetles according to this study.
Present-day scientists continue to observe nature in the hopes of finding solutions to current concerns. The microscopic world, in particular, is a source of infinite possibilities for human development. And that’s where we found our inspiration. There are some proteins in nature that work as accelerants of chemical reactions. They are called enzymes, and have evolved over millions of years to perform biochemical reactions in an exquisite manner. Using them now in the chemical industry could be a solution to the environmental concerns that our planet currently faces.
A promising but elusive tool
Enzymes have two key natural characteristics. First, they are remarkably specific: there is an enzyme for each and every chemical reaction, like a key for a specific keyhole. And secondly, they are highly efficient: they perform their reactions even with scarce raw materials and under mild conditions.
Moreover, if you find an enzyme suited for a reaction but it doesn’t work as good as needed, there are ways to modify it in the lab and make it more efficient! These are based on protein engineering, a discipline that studies the molecular structure of proteins and how changes on it can affect their properties.
For industrial chemical processes, these characteristics may mean a perfect solution to keep up with high production while reducing the impact on the environment.
Then, if enzymes are safer, more stable and efficient alternatives to the current complex and mostly unsustainable industrial processes, why don’t we use them for everything? The reason lies behind the fact that finding the perfect enzyme for a reaction, or creating it by enzyme engineering, is still an expensive and time-consuming process. It requires screening a huge number of microorganisms, plants, animals and fungi —literally, all branches of life on Earth!— in order to find just the right enzyme to catalyse the desired reaction. Thus, we won’t be able to exploit the full potential of enzymes until we find a way to produce and tailor them that is straightforward, affordable, sustainable, and cost- and time-effective.
And that’s our goal at RadicalZ.
Finding and tailoring your perfect enzyme
The European project RadicalZ —short for Rapid Discovery and Development of Enzymes for Novel and Greener Consumer Products— aims to improve current methods for discovering and engineering enzymes. Our goal is to facilitate the production of these molecules by making their development faster, more flexible, more accurate and more affordable. By achieving these goals, we will be providing efficient and sustainable chemical manufacturing processes to relevant industrial sectors.
We will prove our technology’s usefulness by manufacturing sustainable, bio-based consumer products ourselves, specifically three use cases: nutraceuticals, personal care and cosmetics, and laundry products.
Matchmaking efficiency and nature
To achieve our goals, we will rely on state-of-the art tools in science. Using top-class microfluidic screening technologies along with machine learning, we will develop a user-friendly software able to computerise the whole process of enzyme discovery and development in a short time. Our software will be an efficient and easy-to-use tool for the current needs of industry and research, and being a digital solution, it will also be more affordable to perform than conventional experiments in the lab.
With this tool we will be able to tailor our enzymes for any reaction, but we won’t stop there. We want our reactions to use recycled raw materials as sources, such as food-industry by-products, paper and agricultural residues and fat waste, making them even more sustainable for the environment.
Enzymes can become one of the most powerful tools of chemical industry: they are bio-based, nature-friendly and highly efficient. All we need to do is work out the molecular engineering puzzle that will open that door. In RadicalZ, we are committed to address the current limitations until we can finally create a user-friendly tool to discover viable enzymes for any purpose. We will give nature something back from all the times we have drawn from it: a more sustainable and environmentally friendly industry for all.