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Enzymes open up new avenues in the chemical industry


* BASF steps up White Biotechnology operations
* Alliances with European universities

BASF is stepping up its operations in the area of enzyme research. To this end, the company has now signed a cooperation agreement with the Center of Excellence in Biocatalysis, Biotransformation and Biomanufacturing (CoEBio3). The alliance with this research facility affiliated with the University of Manchester is planned for a period of three years. BASF is funding the activities to the tune of € 1 million.

BASF uses enzymes for White Biotechnology. These enzymes, called biocatalysts, help to produce new products and improve existing processes. They are used for instance to manufacture intermediates for the pharmaceutical industry. However, BASF researchers believe that the range of potential applications is much greater – for example, in the production of novel polymers for the cosmetics industry and for surface treatment of textiles.

“The staff of the newly set up institute in Manchester have a wealth of experience in enzyme screening and optimization,” says Dr. Alfred Hackenberger, head of the Specialty Chemicals Research division, outlining the thinking behind the cooperation. “A major advantage is that chemists and biologists work hand in hand and target their efforts toward meeting the requirements of industry,” Hackenberger adds. The research alliance will allow BASF to benefit from the know-how of scientists based outside the company. In addition, the university will undertake the very time-consuming basic research involved.

As part of the deal, the British scientists will be responsible for screening for enzymes of potential technological benefit, among other responsibilities. The screening activities will mainly focus on soil. One gram of soil contains more living microorganisms than there are people on the planet. All these microorganisms depend on a large number of enzymes for proper metabolic functioning and to enable them to cope with a range of environmental conditions. For instance, enzymes are what make living organisms able to digest nutrients and eliminate toxins. The researchers look at what each organism can do and evaluate whether these capabilities are of interest in chemical production. One example is a fungus with the capacity to produce a vitamin or a bacterium able to produce an amino acid. If a special property is identified, the search continues: which of the innumerable enzymes in the microorganism’s metabolism is responsible for the particular ability?

However, the alliance partners are not only responsible for discovering new enzymes. They also optimize the performance of already known biocatalysts with the aid of directed evolution methods. First, the scientists produce numerous variants of the enzyme. State of the art robot lines (high throughput screening) are then used to determine which variants are better than the original enzyme. The optimized enzyme is then used as a basis for manufacturing and reviewing newer variants. This process is repeated until a biocatalyst with the desired performance features has been identified. Subsequently, the Ludwigshafen-based experts ensure that the enzymes also function on a large scale.

The alliance with the Manchester scientists is not the only option chosen by BASF in the search for new enzymes and their optimization. In this year alone, another cooperation agreements were signed with universities in Graz (Austria), Stuttgart and Düsseldorf (Germany). All in all, BASF is involved in more than 30 research alliances in the area of White Biotechnology alone.

BASF has nearly three decades of experience in the area of biotechnology. The company uses biocatalytic processes to produce a variety of products like enzymes for animal nutrition, the amino acid lysine, and chiral intermediates (ChiPros™) by means of living cell fermentation or enzyme catalysis. In 2005, BASF posted sales of around €400 million with products generated completely or partially using biotechnological processes. Expanding research activities within BASF’s “Growth Cluster White Biotechnology” will be supported by investments of €150 million over the period 2006 to 2008.


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