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Hunt for enzymes heats up, a potential boon for biotech and beyond

Unlocking the mysteries of enzymes could have a big payoff, with new drugs, with antibiotics that sidestep viral defenses, or with personalized medicines.

Mikako Sasa is a prospector. Each weekend near Copenhagen, she grabs her special bag, a few plastic tubes, and heads out to the Denmark countryside to collect dirt and mushrooms. What she really wants are enzymes.

Other prospectors like Sasa scour barnyards or anthills. Some venture to Antarctica. Some drive submersible robots to plunge to deep-sea volcanic vents. All are in search for microorganisms that produce enzymes, in hopes of unfolding the mystery of these substances.

“We’re trying to find useful enzymes that do useful jobs,” is how Jeffrey Gardner, a fellow prospector who roots around in bacteria purchased from a national online library, puts it.

Indeed, the search for novel enzymes — substances that are produced by living organisms and that act as catalysts prompting other substances to react — is booming, in no small part because of cheap and quick genome sequencing. That could fuel advances in biotech and beyond.

Read more: In healthy patients, genome sequencing raises alarms while offering few benefits

Enzymes are a body’s basic tools, playing a vital role for virtually all functions of life — the reactions of

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