Short: Enzymes: breaking it down. Barbara Fricks

by Barbara Fricks

Diversity is all around us.  I like to think of myself as studying the biodiversity in soil.  But rather than focusing on plants, animals, or even microbes, I study enzymes.  Every living organism manufactures enzymes, and they are responsible for all biological processes. Whether they exist inside the cell or outside the cell, these little workhorses drive it all. We have numerous enzymes, both extracellular and intracellular.  Saliva contains several enzymes that aid in the breakdown of food.  Microorganisms in soil also have enzymes to breakdown their food. Essentially, enzymes are compounds that facilitate chemical processes, making them occur with greater ease.

I like to think of enzymes and their substrates (stuff they work on) as locks and keys.  Just like the incredible diversity of species on this planet, there is great diversity among enzymes.  Enzymes are made up of individual peptides, like beads on a string.  These strings come together in complex 3-dimensional structures based on chemical properties. Some beads will attract one another and some will repel one another.  The combination of attracting and repelling forces is responsible for maintaining 3-D conformity of an enzyme. Maintaining these 3-D structures is essential for maintaining enzyme functionality.  Changing the structure of an enzyme can completely inactivate it.  Therefore it is remarkable that enzymes with different peptides can still come together in similar ways, maintaining enzyme function. It’s the simple diversities in life that continue to amaze me at the complexity of life, and keep me questioning.

Image: Soil bacteria (Sporosarcina ureae): marlysd on Flickr.