Chomp, chomp - gone are the pollutants of our affluent society. Pesticides and fertilizers that pollute our soil. Detergents that contaminate our waters out of balance. Agriculture that destroys the soil. Fossil fuels that heat up our climate.
Like in the cult video game "Pacman," in which a ravenous yellow disc chases the four ghosts Blinky, Speedy, Inky and Peky, enzymes can now be technically engineered to trigger chemical reactions that kill plant pests in the fields, dirt particles in the laundry or foul-smelling mouth bacteria.
Technical enzymes are produced by genetically optimized microbes. Nature itself provides the blueprint. Specialized biotechnology companies track down the gene sequences responsible for this in bacteria and fungi that naturally produce enzymes. These are extracted and inserted into other microbes. These then become "factories" for very specific enzymes and applications.
Technical enzymes can keep soils fertile in the long term without the need for fertilizers.
Enzymes help save water and they accelerate biofuel production.
Mass-produced in this way, the enzymes can be added to washing processes in textile production, for example. This reduces water consumption when giving jeans a stone-washed look, for example. Similarly, enzymes produce soft leather in an environmentally friendly way by reducing the amount of hydrogen sulfide used in the tanning of animal hides by 40 percent. Enzymes also accelerate the conversion of plant waste into biofuel and also help farm animals excrete as little of their feed as possible.
We urgently need their universal capabilities as catalysts for biological processes of all kinds because the world's appetite is growing and growing. In 2050, there will no longer be 7.7 billion people on earth, but more than nine billion. At the same time, the amount of land used for agriculture will shrink. A report by the German Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture estimates that around twelve million hectares (thirty million acres) of agricultural land are lost worldwide every year due to over grazing, over fertilization and faulty irrigation. If this trend continues, global harvests would be down by up to twelve percent over the next 25 years, with the world's population on the rise.
Intensive fertilization and excessive methane from livestock farming could soon be a thing of the past
At the same time, agriculture contributes about 14 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted worldwide. Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are produced by the excreta of cattle and by agricultural processes such as fertilization and wet rice cultivation. From field to plate, a kilo (2 pounds) of bread produces about 720 grams of carbon dioxide. For a kilo of beef, the figure is around 13,300 grams.
However, technical enzymes can keep soils fertile in the long term without the need for fertilizers, and they can greatly reduce the greenhouse gases emitted by livestock when administered in their feed. Both are crucial for our future livelihoods.
For specialized enzyme manufacturers, however, a key challenge will be to precisely manage the integration of biocatalysts into their customers' production processes. This is because the environment must be optimally adjusted for the industrial use of enzymes. Nutrients, pH-levels, temperature and ventilation must be right - only then can the biochemical helpers fully reach their potential. This is where another breakthrough technology comes into play - digitization. Digitalization is the only way to ensure that the control processes are sufficiently precise to allow the enzymes to work as effectively as possible.