At last, nature kindly provides a faster way to fade blue jeans

World being combed for helpful enzymes

April 01, 2002|By BLOOMBERG NEWS

LEIDEN, Netherlands - To fade a pair of blue jeans used to take years of wear and tear or a washing machine full of pumice stones. Now, an enzyme found near a pink flamingo's mud nest in Kenya can do the job in minutes.

Scientist Brian Jones made the discovery next to one of the thousands of raised mounds dotting a salt lake near the Rift Valley. The six-hour drive from Nairobi to a camp among water buffalo and crocodiles is one of many he's made in the search for new products for his employer, Genencor International Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.

Scientists from rival companies such as Novozymes A/S and Diversa Corp. have the same idea. They've explored regions from the Antarctic ice to the hot vents below the Atlantic Ocean for unique enzymes to add to the $1.5 billion market.

Jones brings his discoveries to Genencor's labs in the Dutch town of Leiden. Here, robots sift through more than 10,000 of the tiny proteins each week in the search for one that may sweeten soft drinks, clean clothes or, one day, treat cancer.

Diversa helped discover a microbe at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. It lives on the wall of a deep sea vent, in temperatures of more than 190 degrees Fahrenheit.

"It's the most heat-resistant organism known," Diversa Chief Executive Officer Jay Short said in a phone interview. It could produce enzymes for "everything from animal feed to malting beer."

Diversa has researchers seeking so-called extreme enzymes in U.S. national parks and in about seven other countries.

"We take a soil sample and grab the genes from the maybe 10,000 organisms in there," Short said. The company, which expects to make a profit in 2004, is introducing two products this year, including one for the animal feed market.

Farmers use enzymes to boost their animals' absorption of nutrients from feed, especially after the European Union widened a ban on bone meal because it can spread mad cow disease.

The United States will eventually widen its ban on bone meal as well, further boosting demand, said Svenska Handelsbanken analyst Rolf Sorensen.

Another potential market for enzyme companies is drugs.

Genencor is taking a second look at experimental medicines that have been discarded because enzymes in the body triggered an allergic reaction.

"Not only do we know how enzymes work," Jones said, "but we know when they won't work."

"If we can make an enzyme to target the spot of dirt on your shirt and leave the rest of the shirt alone, we can also target a cancerous cell while leaving the healthy ones alone," the Genencor scientist said.

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