Enzyme Basics, Part 1 - Great Lakes Bio Systems, Inc.
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Great Lakes Bio Systems, Inc.

Enzyme Basics Part 1

Enzymes are chemicals that are used in all aspects of life.  Whether your body is digesting food, building muscle or even breaking down toxins, enzymes are responsible for a large part of the work.

All living things utilize enzymes.  They are as important to the animal kingdom as they are to humanity.  Electric eels use enzymes to produce electricity and enzymes are used by venomous animals as a means of self-protection and providing food. 

Just about every process of life can be linked to enzymes in some way whether it is breathing or utilizing one's muscles.  For plants, enzymes control cycles of growth and bloom and they assist in many functions that are essential to their life, too.

Enzymes are Proteins

Enzymes are not living things but rather extremely complex proteins.  Though they are extremely large molecules, it is impossible to observe them through a light microscope.  If specially treated and viewed through an electron microscope, however, they can be seen.

An enzyme molecule looks like a long chain of amino acids.  There are twenty different types of amino acids.  In enzymes, these twenty amino acids are combined in different ways and each amino acid can appear numerous times, thus the possible combinations are limitless.  Enzymes that are built of the same building blocks can have vastly different functions because the amino acid chains are constructed in different ways.

The Discovery of Enzymes - Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur is credited with the discovery of enzymes. Enzymes are a relatively new area of scientific research.  Louis Pasteur can arguably be granted credit for the conceptualization of enzymes.  He recognized that something was acting as a catalyst in fermentation.

A German physiologist by the name of Willhelm Kuhne was responsible for the term enzyme which comes from a Greek term en-zume that translates literally into "in yeast."  The scientists that can most fairly be credited for the discovery of the first enzyme, however, is Eduard Buchner who in 1897, discovered that fermentation was possible without yeast and named the first enzyme "zymase."

Since then, it has been discovered that enzymes are proteins that act as catalysts for numerous reactions.  In fact, enzymes are named for the reactions that they catalyze.  Each enzyme will accelerate very specific reactions.  There are thousands of reactions that enzymes have been proven to accelerate and perhaps countless reactions that are yet to be discovered. 

How Do Enzymes Speed Up Chemical Reactions?

Enzymes act as catalysts for a wide range of chemical reactions.  A catalyst is merely an accelerant.  Enzymes speed up chemical reactions, in some cases millions of times faster than the reaction could occur without their presence.

Different enzymes speed up different reactions.  Finding uses for enzymes is all about finding situations where speeding up a chemical reaction can have benefit.  Each enzyme will affect only a single reaction and the degree to which they benefit will depend largely on the conditions under which the reaction is taking place.

pH and temperature play an important role in determining the functionality of enzymes.  If the temperature is too low, enzymes will work slowly.  Increasing the temperature will speed up the process, but only up to a certain point.  Once the temperature becomes too hot, the protein will be denatured and the enzymes will cease to function.  pH also has an optimal range, enzymes will be denatured by pH levels that are too high or too low.  Optimal pH levels will achieve optimal results.

Enzymes speed up chemical reactions by bonding with substrates to create a product of the two.  Substrate is the term used to describe the substance with which an enzyme binds.  An often-used analogy likens the enzyme to a lock and the substrate to a key.  This is particularly appropriate as each type of enzyme can only bond with a single type of substrate.  If the right type of enzyme and substrate come into contact, the reaction will occur.

Continue to Part 2 >>

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