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Cleaning crew

Fungi and bacteria form the basis of detergents used in hospital equipment

Enzymes produced by a fungus and a bacterium form the basis of new detergents developed in Brazil and aimed at the cleaning of surgical instruments, unblocking probes with coagulated residues and digesting and dissolving organic remains, such as bloodstains and others. The development of the products was done at the Biotechnology Center of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (CBiot/UFRGS), and coordinated by professor Marilene Henning Vainstein. The use of detergents that contain enzymes – proteins produced by human beings capable of stimulating chemical reactions without suffering alterations to their composition – is nothing new. But up until today, Brazil had not mastered the process of the industrial production of enzymes for the manufacture of detergents and, for this reason, had to import the raw material for making up the product. “The main advantage in the composition of the detergents containing enzymes is their biodegradable characteristic, ideal for substituting caustic and acidic products, and solvents, which attack the environment and bring about wear and tear of material and instruments” explains professor Marilene.

The first stage in the research consisted in the choice of the microorganisms that would be best suited for industrial use, since the researchers had been looking for bacteria that would produce protease, an enzyme of wide application in the food industry and in the manufacture of detergents, and of amylase, responsible for the degradation of starch molecules. In order to arrive at them, various lineages of the species cited in scientific literature with the desired characteristics were tested. “We knew that some species of the Aspergillus fungus are good producers of amylase” says Marilene. “This made our search easier.” The selecting of the best microorganism to produce protease was also done in the same manner. “A collection of bacteria of the genre Bacillus was tested in order to make a choice of an excellent producer of proteases, which was what he had needed.”

With the choice of the fungus and the bacterium, the researchers then needed to develop a production process that, at the same time, would present a satisfactory yield and would be of low cost, so that it could be applied industrially. Various substances were tested in order to make up the composition of the culture, which contains the elements nitrogen and carbon as well as mineral salts and nutritional additives that cannot be revealed. As soon as this phase was completed, the Rio Grande do Sul research group requested a patent for the production process of protease and amylase for industrial applications.

Proteases represents 60% of the total commerce of enzymes in the world within a market estimated at US$ 1 billion. As well as the detergent and food industries, they are used in the treatment of leather, in the substitution of toxic compounds and pollutants. The adoption of biological processes in tanneries has as its main objective a cost reduction in the treatment of effluent resulting from the chemical processes. Amylases are used in industry to break down starch molecules, originating substrates that are important in the preparation of glucose and maltose syrups or mixtures, bakeries, breweries and the production of ethanol. In the manufacture of detergents they are used to remove residues. The diversified use of enzymes is related to their characteristics of performing as specific bio-catalysts, which are substances that modify the reaction rate of a chemical reaction.

The development at the university originated from a request made by entrepreneurs in the town of Cachoeirinha, in Rio Grande do Sul State. Newton Mário Battastini and Ivete Casagrande Battastini are partners in the companies Tecfarm and Tecpon, which import enzymes from a Danish firm in order to produce detergents for hospital cleaning that are sold here in Brazil. The proposal for the study and the production of these enzymes was made to the veterinarian Sydnei Mitidieri Silveira, who had published work on the theme. He then started work on his doctorate degree through the Post Graduation Program in Cellular and Molecular Biology at the Biotechnology Center of UFGRS and took the idea to professor Marilene. At the same time, during 2000, a tender was published by the Research Support Foundation of Rio Grande do Sul (Fapergs) supporting interactions between universities and companies. The coincidence of interests led to the presentation of a project to the foundation for the development of enzymes, which was approved. The companies entered with part of the resources necessary for research. “The initial idea was to work on the development of yet another enzyme, lipase, which degrades lipids, but as yet we have not managed the expected results” says Marilene.

All of the part of the development of enzymes for industrial application is now ready. The company named Enzi-Far, an arm of Tecfarm and Tecpon that is being housed at the CBiot Entrepreneurial Incubator of the university, is now working on the optimization of the industrial production scale. “The company is producing 400 liters of these enzymes per week, which are being used for various formulae and stability tests” says Marilene. “As soon as we accelerate the production, the companies can start to sell the biodegradable detergents to hospitals.” In the future, other formula recipes could be made up making use of the same enzymes for the treatment of sewers, leathers and in the cleaning up of bakery residues. For this to occur, only a few adjustments will need to be done in the process of making up the formula because all of the production scale process had already been mastered.