Enzymes are biological catalysts, or chemicals that speed up the rate of reaction between substances without themselves being consumed in the reaction. As such, they are vital to such bodily functions as digestion, and they make possible processes that normally could not occur except at temperatures so high they would threaten the well-being of the body. A type of protein, enzymes sometimes work in tandem with non-proteins called coenzymes. Among the processes in which enzymes play a vital role is fermentation, which takes place in the production of alcohol or the baking of bread and also plays a part in numerous other natural phenomena, such as the purification of wastewater.
Amino acids are organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and (in some cases) sulfur bonded in characteristic formations. Strings of 50 or more amino acids are known as proteins, large molecules that serve the functions of promoting normal growth, repairing damaged tissue, contributing to the body's immune system, and making enzymes. The latter are a type of protein that functions as a catalyst, a substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without participating in it. Catalysts, of which enzymes in the bodies of plants and animals are a good example, thus are not consumed in the reaction.
In a chemical reaction, substances known as reactants interact with one another to create new substances, called products. Energy is an important component in the chemical reaction, because a certain threshold, termed the activation energy, must be crossed before a reaction can occur. To increase the rate at which a reaction takes place and to hasten the crossing of the activation energy threshold, it is necessary to do one of three things.
The first two options are to increase either the concentration of reactants or the temperature at which the reaction takes place. It is not always feasible or desirable, however, to do either of these things. Many of the processes that take place in the human body, for instance, normally would require high temperatures—temperatures, in fact, that are too high to sustain human life. Imagine what would happen if the only way we had of digesting starch was to heat it to the boiling point inside our stomachs! Fortunately, there is a third option: the introduction of a catalyst, a substance that speeds up a reaction without participating in it either as a reactant or as a product. Catalysts thus are not consumed in the reaction. Enzymes, which facilitate the necessary reactions in our bodies without raising temperatures or increasing the concentrations of substances, are a prime example of a chemical catalyst.
Long before chemists recognized the existence of catalysts, ordinary people had been using the chemical process known as catalysis for numerous purposes: making soap, fermenting wine to create vinegar, or leavening bread, for instance. Early in the nineteenth century, chemists began to take note of this phenomenon. In 1812 the Russian chemist Gottlieb Kirchhoff (1764-1833) was studying the conversion of starches to sugar in the presence of strong acids when he noticed something interesting.
When a suspension of starch (that is, particles of starch suspended in water) was boiled, Kirchhoff observed, no change occurred in the starch. When he added a few drops of concentrated acid before boiling the suspension, however, he obtained a very different result. This time, the starch broke down to form glucose, a simple sugar (see Carbohydrates), whereas the acid—which clearly had facilitated the reaction—underwent no change. In 1835 the Swedish chemist Jöns Berzelius (1779-1848) provided a name to the process Kirchhoff had observed: catalysis, derived from the Greek words kata ("down") and lyein ("loosen"). Just two years earlier, in 1833, the French physiologist Anselme Payen (1795-1871) had isolated a material from malt that accelerated the conversion of starch to sugar, for instance, in the brewing of beer.
The renowned French chemist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), who was right about so many things, called these catalysts ferments and pronounced them separate organisms. In 1897, however, the German biochemist Eduard Buchner (1860-1917) isolated the catalysts that bring about the fermentation of alcohol and determined that they were chemical substances, not organisms. By that time, the German physiologist Willy Kahne had suggested the name enzyme for these catalysts in living systems.
Each type of enzyme is geared to interact chemically with only one particular substance or type of substance, termed a substrate. The two parts fit together, according to a widely accepted theory introduced in the 1890s by the German chemist Emil Fischer (1852-1919), as a key fits into a lock. Each type of enzyme has a specific three-dimensional shape that enables it to fit with the substrate, which has a complementary shape.
The link between enzymes and substrates is so strong that enzymes often are named after the substrate involved, simply by adding ase to the name of the substrate. For example, lactase is the enzyme that catalyzes the digestion of lactose, or milk sugar, and urease catalyzes the chemical breakdown of urea, a substance in urine. Enzymes bind their reactants or substrates at special folds and clefts, named active sites, in the structure of the substrate. Because numerous interactions are required in their work of catalysis, enzymes must have many active sites, and therefore they are very large, having atomic mass figures as high as one million amu. (An atomic mass unit, or amu, is approximately equal to the mass of a proton, a positively charged particle in the nucleus of an atom.)
Suppose a substrate molecule, such as a starch, needs to be broken apart for the purposes of digestion in a living body. The energy needed to break apart the substrate is quite large, larger than is available in the body. An enzyme with the correct molecular shape arrives on the scene and attaches itself to the substrate molecule, forming a chemical bond within it. The formation of these bonds causes the breaking apart of other bonds within the substrate molecule, after which the enzyme, its work finished, moves on to another uncatalyzed substrate molecule.
All enzymes belong to the protein family, but many of them are unable to participate in a catalytic reaction until they link with a non protein component called a coenzyme. This can be a medium-size molecule called a prosthetic group, or it can be a metal ion (an atom with a net electric charge), in which case it is known as a cofactor. Quite often, though, coenzymes are composed wholly or partly of vitamins. Although some enzymes are attached very tightly to their coenzymes, others can be parted easily; in either case, the parting almost always deactivates both partners.
The first coenzyme was discovered by the English biochemist Sir Arthur Harden (1865-1940) around the turn of the nineteenth century. Inspired by Buchner, who in 1897 had detected an active enzyme in yeast juice that he had named zymase, Harden used an extract of yeast in most of his studies. He soon discovered that even after boiling, which presumably destroyed the enzymes in yeast, such deactivated yeast could be reactivated. This finding led Harden to the realization that a yeast enzyme apparently
Enzymes enable the many chemical reactions that are taking place at any second inside the body of a plant or animal. One example of an enzyme is cytochrome, which aids the respiratory system by catalyzing the combination of oxygen with hydrogen within the cells. Other enzymes facilitate the conversion of food to energy and make possible a variety of other necessary biological functions. Enzymes in the human body fulfill one of three basic functions. The largest of all enzyme types, sometimes called metabolic enzymes, assist in a wide range of basic bodily processes, from breathing to thinking. Some such enzymes are devoted to maintaining the immune system, which protects us against disease, and others are involved in controlling the effects of toxins, such as tobacco smoke, converting them to forms that the body can expel more easily.
A second category of enzyme is in the diet and consists of enzymes in raw foods that aid in the process of digesting those foods. They include proteases, which implement the digestion of protein; lipases, which help in digesting lipids or fats; and amylases, which make it possible to digest carbohydrates. Such enzymes set in motion the digestive process even when food is still in the mouth. As these enzymes move with the food into the upper portion of the stomach, they continue to assist with digestion.
The third group of enzymes also is involved in digestion, but these enzymes are already in the body. The digestive glands secrete juices containing enzymes that break down nutrients chemically into smaller molecules that are more easily absorbed by the body. Amylase in the saliva begins the process of breaking down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars. While food is still in the mouth, the stomach begins producing pepsin, which, like protease, helps digest protein.
Later, when food enters the small intestine, the pancreas secretes pancreatic juice—which contains three enzymes that break down carbohydrates, fats, and proteins—into the duodenum, which is part of the small intestine. Enzymes from food wind up among the nutrients circulated to the body through plasma, a watery liquid in which red blood cells are suspended. These enzymes in the blood assist the body in everything from growth to protection against infection.
One digestive enzyme that should be in the body, but is not always present, is lactase. As we noted earlier, lactase works on lactose, the principal carbohydrate in milk, to implement its digestion. If a person lacks this enzyme, consuming dairy products may cause diarrhea, bloating, and cramping. Such a person is said to be "lactose intolerant," and if he or she is to consume dairy products at all, they must be in forms that contain lactase. For this reason, Lactaid milk is sold in the specialty dairy section of major supermarkets, while many health-food stores sell lactaid tablets.
Fermentation, in its broadest sense, is a process involving enzymes in which a compound rich in energy is broken down into simpler substances. It also is sometimes identified as a process in which large organic molecules (those containing hydrogen and carbon) are broken down into simpler molecules as the result of the action of microorganisms working anaerobically, or in the absence of oxygen. The most familiar type of fermentation is the conversion of sugars and starches to alcohol by enzymes in yeast. To distinguish this reaction from other kinds of fermentation, the process is sometimes termed alcoholic or ethanolic fermentation.
At some point in human prehistory, humans discovered that foods spoil, or go bad. Yet at the dawn of history—that is, in ancient Sumer and Egypt—people found that sometimes the "spoilage" (that is, fermentation) of products could have beneficial results. Hence the fermentation of fruit juices, for example, resulted in the formation of primitive forms of wine. Over the centuries that followed, people learned how to make both alcoholic beverages and bread through the controlled use of fermentation.
In fermentation, starch is converted to simple sugars, such as sucrose and glucose, and through a complex sequence of some 12 reactions, these sugars then are converted to ethyl alcohol (the kind of alcohol that can be consumed, as opposed to methyl alcohol and other toxic forms) and carbon dioxide. Numerous enzymes are needed to carry out this sequence of reactions,
The alcoholic beverages that can be produced by fermentation vary widely, depending primarily on two factors: the plant that is fermented and the enzymes used for fermentation. Depending on the materials available to them, various peoples have used grapes, berries, corn, rice, wheat, honey, potatoes, barley, hops, cactus juice, cassava roots, and other plant materials for fermentation to produce wines, beers, and other fermented drinks. The natural product used in making the beverage usually determines the name of the synthetic product. Thus, for instance, wine made with rice—a time-honored tradition in Japan—is known as sake, while a fermented beverage made from barley, hops, or malt sugar has a name very familiar to Americans: beer. Grapes make wine, but "wine" made from honey is known as mead.
Of course, ethyl alcohol is not the only useful product of fermentation or even of fermentation using yeast; so, too, are baked goods, such as bread. The carbon dioxide generated during fermentation is an important component of such items. When the batter for bread is mixed, a small amount of sugar and yeast is added. The bread then rises, which is more than just a figure of speech: it actually puffs up as a result of the fermentation of the sugar by enzymes in the yeast, which brings about the formation of carbon dioxide gas. The carbon dioxide gives the batter bulkiness and texture that would be lacking without the fermentation process. Another food-related application of fermentation is the production of one processed type of food from a raw, natural variety. The conversion of raw olives to the olives sold in stores, of cucumbers to pickles, and of cabbage to sauerkraut utilizes a particular bacterium that assists in a type of fermentation.
There is even ongoing research into the creation of edible products from the fermentation of petroleum. While this may seem a bit far-fetched, it is less difficult to comprehend powering cars with an environmentally friendly product of fermentation known as gasohol. Gasohol first started to make headlines in the 1970s, when an oil embargo and resulting increases in gas prices, combined with growing environmental concerns, raised the need for a type of fuel that would use less petroleum. A mixture of about 90% gasoline and 10% alcohol, gasohol burns more cleanly that gasoline alone and provides a promising method for using renewable resources (plant material) to extend the availability of a nonrenewable resource (petroleum). Furthermore, the alcohol needed for this product can be obtained from the fermentation of agricultural and municipal wastes.
The applications of fermentation span a wide spectrum, from medicines that go into people's bodies to the cleaning of waters containing human waste. Some antibiotics and other drugs are prepared by fermentation: for example, cortisone, used in treating arthritis, can be made by fermenting a plant steroid known as diosgenin. In the treatment of wastewater, anaerobic, or non-oxygen-dependent, bacteria are used to ferment organic material. Thus, solid wastes are converted to carbon dioxide, water, and mineral salts.
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A threshold that must be crossed to facilitate a chemical reaction. There are three ways to reach the activation energy: by increasing the concentration of reactants, by raising their temperature, or by introducing a catalyst, such as an enzyme.
Folds and clefts on the surface of an enzyme that enable attach ment to its particular substrate.
Organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitro gen, and (in some cases) sulfur bonded in characteristic formations. Strings of amino acids make up proteins.
The area of the bio logical sciences concerned with the chemical substances and processes in organisms.
Naturally occurring compounds, consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, whose primary function in the body is to supply energy. Included in the carbohydrate group are sugars, starches, cellulose, and various other substances. Most carbohydrates are produced by green plants in the process of undergoing photosynthesis.
The act or process of cat alyzing, or speeding up the rate of reaction between substances.
A substance that speeds up a chemical reaction without participating in it. Catalysts, of which enzymes are a good example, thus are not consumed in the reaction.
A non protein component sometimes required to allow an enzyme to set in motion a catalytic reaction.
A protein that acts as a catalyst, a material that speeds up chemical reactions in the bodies of plants and animals without itself taking part in, or being consumed by, these reactions.
A process involving enzymes in which a compound rich in energy is broken down into simpler substances.
The chemical process by which nutrients are broken down and converted into energy or are used in the construction of new tissue or other materi al in the body.
A group of atoms, usual ly but not always representing more than one element, joined in a structure. Compounds typically are made up of molecules.
At one time, chemists used the term organic only in reference to living things. Now the word is applied to compounds containing carbon and hydrogen.
Large molecules built from long chains of 50 or more amino acids. Proteins serve the functions of promoting normal growth, repairing damaged tissue, contributing to the body's immune system, and making enzymes.
A substance that interacts with another substance in a chemical reaction, resulting in the formation of a chemical or chemicals known as the product.
Complex carbohydrates without taste or odor, which are granular or powdery in physical form.
A reactant that typically is paired with a particular enzyme. Enzymes often are named after their respective substrates by adding the suffix ase (e.g., the enzyme lactase is paired with the substrate lactose).
One of the three principal types of carbohydrate, along with starches and cellulose. Sugars can be defined as any of various water-soluble carbohydrates of varying sweetness. What we think of as "sugar" (i.e., table sugar) is actually sucrose.
Organic substances that, in extremely small quantities, are essential to the nutrition of most animals and some plants. In particular, vitamins work with enzymes in regulating metabolic processes; however, they do not in themselves provide energy, and thus vitamins alone do not qualify as a form of nutrition.