The Future of Food Powered by Advancements in Enzyme Technology

Published on: Feb 14 2024

The future of food production relies on significant advances in microbiology, bioprocessing, enzyme technology and artificial intelligence, in order to feed a growing population, set to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050, while also reducing the negative impacts of food production on the planet.

Recent advances in synthetic biotechnological processes such as precision fermentation and enzyme & strain engineering are proving pivotal in the development of future sustainable nutrition directly influencing many of the global challenges such as improving the efficiency of agricultural processes, reducing food waste and addressing consumer demands for healthier, more sustainable products without any compromise on taste.

Enzymes; Nature’s Biocatalysts enable Sustainable Nutrition

On this sustainability journey, enzymes have become an increasing important ally due to their high efficiency, specificity and their ability to create a more efficient food system. Used in food production for centuries and produced commercially since the mid-20th century, enzymes, as nature’s biocatalysts, are a multifaceted biotechnology for the food and beverage industry, enabling operational efficiencies, improving product quality, extending shelf life, valorizing waste streams, unlocking nutrients and more.

To maximise their impact, enzymes must be highly efficient & economically competitive in their industrial settings, this requires finely tuned biocatalysts that are not only robust and stable but highly selective under industrial process conditions. And here lies the exciting part, scientists have only just reached the tip of the iceberg in understanding and exploiting the potential of enzymes. Remarkably, only a tiny fraction of all potentially available enzymes from natural resources have been discovered and utilized to date. When you couple this incredible potential with increased consumer focus on health, environment, sustainability and the ongoing research and innovation focus on enzymes optimisation, it is clear that the future of enzymes is to positively disrupt our food system by building a more efficient and sustainable food chain.

Enzyme technology: Enzyme Library

Image from: Industrial Enzyme Applications (2019)

To date, food and beverage manufacturers have utilized to great effect the power of well-known enzymes in application, but to truly transform food production, novel functionalities are required. As a result, there is a new wave of directed evolutionary enzyme technology to deliver improved functionalities to new or existing enzymes, which enable food producers to create healthier, tastier products that have less impact on the environment.

For example, the food and beverage industry is now on an on-going quest for safer and cleaner methods to produce various compounds such as sweeteners, emulsifiers, pre- and postbiotics and fermented ingredients. Inspired by the work of individuals such as Frances Arnold (2018 Nobel Prize Winner in Chemistry), this has triggered a focus on harnessing enzymes and enzymatic cascades that will complement or even replace bulk chemical ingredient and high energy processes with more natural and sustainable options.

Optimizing enzymes through bio-engineering

Enzyme Engineering allows the optimization of enzyme properties through introduction of changes into the amino acid sequence of the protein. These properties include enzyme activity, selectivity, stability as well as the appropriate substrate scope and concentration. This begins with the use of enzyme variant libraries which are analysed in a high-throughput format for the desired properties. Bioinformatics is used to design genes, analyze structural and sequence information and finally store the data sequence and function in a database. The latter allows us to learn from the gathered data using Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Enzyme Technology Development

Using this variant information coupled with molecular biological methods in hand, it is possible to train microbial strains, which grow to high cell densities in large fermentation vessels to produce an enzyme from a different origin to high titers. Several host organisms from bacterial, yeast and fungal kingdom have developed enzyme production strains. They differ in their capability for the functional production of a foreign enzyme, which depends on the source and nature of the enzyme. As there is no universal production strain, an enzyme producer needs a portfolio of different strains and the expertise to cultivate them to high densities and to maximise enzyme production.

Challenges to accept GM technologies.

However, there are many challenges regarding the implementation and acceptance of such technological developments. One such challenge will be the opinion of the consumer, who ultimately needs to be convinced that future food will be in some part produced by engineered microorganisms. Interestingly the utilization of engineered non-wild-type microorganisms may sound futuristic but there are already many examples of commercial products from engineered microbes. For example, in food production, engineered microbes can be used to produce specific enzymes to help degrade acrylamide in coffee extracts or to more efficiently produce natural high-intensity sweeteners from plants. These examples illustrate the potential for balancing traditional food fermentation practices and modern biotechnologies.

As new enzymes are brought into the food chain, the requirements to meeting food safety regulations is of key and growing concern. Additionally, the rapid and continuous improvement of genomic technologies which are used to characterize and classify production strains (future and current) will significantly impact the regulatory landscape regarding their use in food, feed and beverage applications.

The dynamic landscape of sustainable nutrition is being reshaped by the remarkable strides in enzyme and strain engineering, as well as precision fermentation technologies. The potential for these advancements to revolutionize food and beverage production is substantial, with the promise of enhanced efficiency in agricultural processes, reduced food waste, and the creation of healthier, more sustainable products that cater to evolving consumer preferences. As we navigate the challenges associated with the acceptance of genetically modified technologies and ensure compliance with stringent food safety regulations, the ongoing collaboration between scientists, bioengineers, and regulatory bodies will be pivotal. The fusion of enzyme engineering with cutting-edge bioinfomatic approaches opens new frontiers for the creation of novel enzymes, paving the way for a future where sustainable nutrition is not just a goal but a reality.

  • Dr. Niall Higgins, PhD

    Niall Higgins, Ph.D joined Kerry in 2016 in a role responsible for the development of Kerry enzyme technologies, driving the full innovation chain from concept design to product delivery. Since then Niall has held multiple positions within Kerry as R&D Manager, Integration Lead, Senior Business Development Manager and now Head of Product Innovation, based at c-LEcta, Leipzig, Germany. Niall is experienced and passionate about science-based concept ideation, new product development & market introduction. Prior to joining Kerry, Niall completed a Ph.D. at the National University of Ireland, Galway (2012) and served as a research scientist at the University of Nottingham, UK (2012-2016) specializing in Enzyme development.

  • Dr. Andreas Vogel, PhD

    Andreas Vogel has more than 15 years of experience in the field of biocatalysis and enzyme engineering. He is Head of R&D Enzyme Development at c-LEcta. He was originally trained in chemistry (University of Münster, Germany). After completing his PhD in biochemistry/chemistry at the University of Münster, he joined the EMBL branch in Hamburg in 2000 as a postdoc, where he worked on structure-function relationships of enzymes. In 2003, he started his second postdoctoral position at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research with Prof. M. T. Reetz, where he was involved in the development of methods for enzyme optimization (CASTing, B-Fit) and biocatalysis. He joined c-LEcta in 2006, first as a scientist and since 2007 as Head of the Biocatalysis & Enzyme Engineering Department. Andreas is the author of more than 40 scientific publications and patents and co-editor of the book “Industrial Enzyme Applications” published by Wiley-VCH.

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