Researchers at Heriot-Watt University and Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in collaboration with Edinburgh-based Ingenza, are searching for new enzymes for use as manufacturing tools in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.
The project, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Technology Strategy Board, uses biochemical techniques to identify potentially useful enzymes in microbes that are found in the sea.
Dr Robert Speight, head of biosciences at Ingenza, said: ‘We are using biology in our chemical processes to come up with improved manufacturing routes. We are taking advantage of the natural diversity of marine organisms that has arisen through evolution in different environments and coupling that with high-tech screening systems.
'We are looking to find naturally-occurring microbes that already have a built-in capacity to do the chemical reactions we want to perform in industry. There is every possibility of developing more efficient and sustainable manufacturing solutions – for pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals in particular – as a result of this search.’
Micro-organisms account for more than 95 per cent of ocean biomass, but relatively little is really known about them and their potential applications.
The research team is searching for industrially-relevant enzymes that will reduce waste and increase productivity in the manufacture of drugs and agrochemicals.
The enzymes will have the ability to convert compounds that would have previously been waste products in the manufacturing process into the desired product, increasing the efficiency of the process.
Prof Mark Keane from Heriot-Watt said: ‘Our approach is to look for microbes that can promote the chemical reactions that we want to use in manufacturing. We then treat the microbes under conditions where they produce the key enzymes in higher yield, which we finally purify.
'The enzymes then undergo systematic testing to evaluate their activity, which enables us to pinpoint candidates that exhibit the best performance.
‘We are now identifying microbes with a type of enzyme called an amine oxidase. This could be key to cheaper, more efficient and sustainable processes in the synthesis of valuable chemicals by both the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.'
Prof Doug Kell, chief executive at the BBSRC, added: ‘What the outcomes of this project will offer us is the chance to have a significant impact on the sustainability of pharmaceutical and biochemicals production as we move from oil-based to photosynthesis-derived chemistry.’