Refrigerators Full of Bacteria and Algae
We are first led into a nondescript underground room containing perhaps a dozen wide refrigerators. “This is the heart of BRAIN AG – our bioarchive,” explains Dr. Wolfgang Aehle. The highly experienced chemist is responsible for corporate development in the field of performance proteins and enzymes. “These refrigerators contain our collection of microorganisms and microalgae – in total, around 53,000 different strains isolated from, for example, ground or water samples.”
These largely un-researched bacteria, yeasts and algae produce countless enzymes to help them biochemically convert molecules from their natural environment for their own metabolic processes. But some of these enzymes are potentially viable for technical applications. In domestic products, for example, they can help to increase the stain removal properties of washing agents; or they can modify organic molecules from certain kinds of waste so that they can potentially be used in the production of lubricants.
To ensure the practicability of this application, the experts in Zwingenberg first need detailed input, which is to come from the enzyme. This input was provided, in this case, by the FUCHS advanced development team, explains Dr. Birgit Heinze, ZeroCarb project manager at BRAIN. And now this is where the expertise of the biotechnology specialists comes in. “The first step is screening,” says the project manager. This is a process that involves identifying potential enzyme candidates and producers, for example using microorganisms that the researchers know possess the ability to functionalize fatty acids. One door down, in the molecular biology laboratory, the microorganisms are cultivated and then tested for their ability to produce the required molecule.
“This qualitative preselection process is followed by the quantitative examination,” continues Birgit Heinze. This process involves clarifying, for example, exactly how and how effectively the enzyme works. “Parallel to this, we start to develop the actual biocatalytic process.” To simulate the technical process in which the enzyme is to convert the raw material into the final product, the scientists use a SpinChem reactor – a saucepan-sized glass container with a stirrer and perforated chamber attached. This contains the enzyme, which is on a carrier material. “Here we can see, for example, how stable the enzyme is,” says the project manager.