A female scientist checking micro-titre plate for protein concentrates as part of the bioremediation project - screening for protein concentrates.

Researching enzymes to improve our world

Enzymes are proving invaluable to the bioremediation of polluted water and pesticide contaminated soil, to improving plant health and crop sustainability, and to the recovery of existing fossil fuel supplies.

  • 28 May 2010 | Updated 14 October 2011

Enzymatic bioremediation of pesticide residues

Bioremediation describes the cleaning up of environmental contamination by biological means, and enzymatic bioremediation uses enzyme preparations rather than the microorganisms themselves to do the job more quickly and efficiently.

These enzymes can be derived from soil microorganisms or from insects that may have developed resistance to insecticides. The enzyme's performance is then improved by modern molecular biology techniques.

Enzymes can be tailor-made to catalyse the degradation of a wide variety of pesticides and toxins that threaten our environment and food industries.

Researchers have already discovered gene/enzyme systems that effectively degrade certain organophosphate and synthetic pyrethroid insecticides, and fungicidal carbamates and insecticidal carbamates.

Collaborators in this research to date include:

  • Orica Australia Limited
  • Research School of Chemistry, Australian National University (ANU), Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
  • Horticulture Australia Limited
  • Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (SIIB)
  • Cotton Catchment Communities CRC
  • Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA)
  • Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries (QDPIF)
  • James Cook University (JCU).

Grain protection enzymes

CSIRO researchers are investigating bacteria as a source of suitable enzymes for the degradation of the herbicides, glyphosate and paraquat, and fungal toxins, in particular, aflatoxin.

Research on these enzymes is part of the Grains Protection Genes program that aims to discover and introduce genes/enzymes into Australian grain crops that will give individual plants in-built defences to problems ranging from insects and nematodes to plant diseases.

Enzymes will be tailor-made to catalyse the degradation of pesticides and toxins that threaten our environment and food industries.

As a result of the Grains Protection Enzymes project, crop plants of the future may have genes that produce enzymes to degrade herbicides used for weed control or that degrade aflatoxins threatening the health of those who eat contaminated plant products.

Grains Research & Development Corporation (GRDC) are partners in this research.

Synthetic enzymes

The focus of this research is to use synthetic biology to create enzymes which catalyse intractable reactions.

Enzymes are ideal catalysts as they work efficiently in water under mild conditions, exhibit excellent control of reactivity, and are environmentally benign.

However, there are entire classes of contemporary chemical reactions that enzymes do not catalyse and for which efficient catalysts remain elusive.

Research is focused on the development of enzymes with totally new reactivity. Designing and creating an enzyme with a radically different reaction capability poses a significant challenge.

Synthetic enzymes have potential applications in the following areas:

  • manufacturing industries
  • agricultural and environmental biotechnologies
  • biosecurity.

This research will also provide scientifically important insights into the evolution and limits of enzyme function.

Partners in this research include:

  • Research School of Chemistry, ANU
  • CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering.

Fuel biotechnology

Oil is a finite resource and CSIRO researchers are interested in tackling issues associated with the availability of current fossil fuels. The importance of this research is rapidly increasing as the international price of crude oil rises.

Research is aimed at developing biological processes to enhance recovery and upgrade existing fossil fuel supplies. Researchers have already used microbes in a process that enhances the amount of oil recovered from petroleum reservoirs.

A major focus of current research is the development of non-aqueous biocatalytic systems to transform crude oil components into more valuable compounds. Both crude and biological oils contain valuable complex organic compounds in trace amounts. By utilising the specificity of the non-catalytic enzymes, these compounds can be potentially recovered.

CSIRO is also embarking on research into ligno-cellulose degradation to support the sustainable production of biofuels and bioproducts in a future Australian bio-economy.

Read how CSIRO's research sees Enzyme product removes pesticides from water.