Enzymes are potent catalysts

Enzymes and reaction equilibrium

How do enzymes work? The broad answer to this question is that they do not alter the equilibrium (i.e. the thermodynamics) of a reaction. This is because enzymes do not fundamentally change the structure and energetics of the products and reagents, but rather they simply allow the reaction equilibrium to be attained more rapidly.
Enzyme kinetics

Enzyme kinetics is the study of factors that determine the speed of enzyme-catalysed reactions.
Enzymes are affected by pH and temperature

Various environmental factors are able to affect the rate of enzyme-catalysed reactions through reversible or irreversible changes in the protein structure. The effects of pH and temperature are generally well understood.

Most enzymes have a characteristic optimum pH at which the velocity of the catalysed reaction is maximal, and above and below which the velocity declines (Figure 9).
Enzymes are sensitive to inhibitors

Substances that reduce the activity of an enzyme-catalysed reaction are known as inhibitors. They act by either directly or indirectly influencing the catalytic properties of the active site. Inhibitors can be foreign to the cell or natural components of it. Those in the latter category can represent an important element of the regulation of cell metabolism. Many toxins and also many pharmacologically active agents (both illegal drugs and prescription and over-the-counter medicines) act by inhibiting specific enzyme-catalysed processes.

Reversible inhibition

Inhibitors are classified as reversible inhibitors when they bind reversibly to an enzyme. A molecule that is structurally similar to the normal substrate may be able to bind reversibly to the enzyme's active site and therefore act as a competitive inhibitor.
The exact mechanism whereby the enzyme acts to increase the rate of the reaction differs from one system to another. However, the general principle is that by binding of the substrate to the enzyme, the reaction involving the substrate is made more favourable by lowering the activation energy of the reaction.
Amino acid-based enzymes are globular proteins that range in size from less than 100 to more than 2 000 amino acid residues.
In terms of energetics, reactions can be either exergonic (releasing energy) or endergonic (consuming energy). However, even in an exergonic reaction a small amount of energy, termed the activation energy, is needed to give the reaction a ‘kick start.’ A good analogy is that of a match, the head of which contains a mixture of energy-rich chemicals (phosphorus sesquisulfide and potassium chlorate). When a match burns it releases substantial amounts of light and heat energy (exergonically reacting with O2 in the air). However, and perhaps fortunately, a match will not spontaneously ignite, but rather a small input of energy in the form of heat generated through friction (i.e. striking of the match) is needed to initiate the reaction. Of course once the match has been struck the amount of energy released is considerable, and greatly exceeds the small energy input during the striking process.
Allosteric regulators and the control of enzyme activity

Having spent time learning about enzyme kinetics and the Michaelis–Menten relationship, it is often quite disconcerting to find that some of the most important enzymes do not in fact display such properties. Allosteric enzymes are key regulatory enzymes that control the activities of metabolic pathways by responding to inhibitors and activators. These enzymes in fact show a sigmoidal (S-shaped) relationship between reaction rate and substrate concentration (Figure 11), rather than the usual hyperbolic relationship. Thus for allosteric enzymes there is an area where activity is lower than that of an equivalent ‘normal’ enzyme, and also an area where activity is higher than that of an equivalent ‘normal’ enzyme, with a rapid transition between these two phases. This is rather like a switch that can quickly be changed from ‘off’ (low activity) to ‘on’ (full activity).
Origin, purification and uses of enzymes
Enzymes are ubiquitous

Enzymes are essential components of animals, plants and microorganisms, due to the fact that they catalyse and co-ordinate the complex reactions of cellular metabolism.

Up until the 1970s, most of the commercial application of enzymes involved animal and plant sources. At that time, bulk enzymes were generally only used within the food-processing industry, and enzymes from animals and plants were preferred, as they were considered to be free from the problems of toxicity and contamination that were associated with enzymes of microbial origin. However, as demand grew and as fermentation technology developed, the competitive cost of microbial enzymes was recognized and they became more widely used.

Compared with enzymes from plant and animal sources, microbial enzymes have economic, technical and ethical advantages, which will now be outlined.
Economic advantages

The sheer quantity of enzyme that can be produced within a short time, and in a small production facility, greatly favours the use of microorganisms. For example, during the production of rennin (a milk-coagulating enzyme used in cheese manufacture) the traditional approach is to use the enzyme extracted from the stomach of a calf (a young cow still feeding on its mother's milk). The average quantity of rennet extracted from a calf's stomach is 10 kg, and it takes several months of intensive farming to produce a calf. In comparison, a 1 000-litre fermenter of recombinant Bacillus subtilis can produce 20 kg of enzyme within 12 h. Thus the microbial product is clearly preferable economically, and is free from the ethical issues that surround the use of animals. Indeed, most of the cheese now sold in supermarkets is made from milk coagulated with microbial enzymes (so is suitable for vegetarians).
Within the cell, enzymes are generally found along with other proteins, nucleic acids, polysaccharides and lipids.