Enzymes are proteins that catalyze (i.e. accelerate) chemical reactions. In these reactions, the molecules at the beginning of the process are called substrates, and the enzyme converts these into different molecules, the products. Almost all processes in the cell need enzymes in order to occur at significant rates. Since enzymes are extremely selective for their substrates and speed up only a few reactions from among many possibilities, the set of enzymes made in a cell determines which metabolic pathways occur in that cell.

Like all catalysts, enzymes work by lowering the activation energy for a reaction and thus dramatically accelerating the rate of the reaction. By binding the transition-state conformation of the substrate/product molecules, the enzyme distorts the bound substrate(s) into their transition state form, thereby reducing the amount of energy required to complete the transition. Most natural enzymes accelerate their reaction many millions of times faster compared to the uncatalyzed reaction. As with all catalysts, enzymes are not consumed by the reactions they catalyze, nor do they alter the equilibrium of these reactions. However, enzymes do differ from most other catalysts by being much more specific. Enzymes are known to catalyze about 4,000 biochemical reactions. Not all biochemical catalysts are proteins, since some RNA molecules called ribozymes can also catalyze reactions.

Some enzymes are used commercially, for example, in the synthesis of antibiotics. In addition, some household products use enzymes to speed up biochemical reactions (e.g., enzymes in biological washing powders break down protein or fat stains on clothes; enzymes in steak tenderizers break down long meat proteins, making them easier to chew).

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About the Authors

The authors are associated with the Department of Clothing & Textiles, G.B.P.U.A & T, Pantnagar, Udham Singh Nagar, India.