Enlisting Enzymes for Ecoefficiency

Models of stain-fighting enzymes, displayed on clothes in a washing machine. Credit Carsten Snejbjerg for The New York Times

We’ve been highlighting mycological innovation since the early days of this site, and our enthusiasm has yet to wane. The range of fungi-power will never cease to amaze.

Fighting Climate Change,
One Laundry Load at a Time

A Danish biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change — one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.

In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibers. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes like decay.

“There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for,” said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists.

Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures. The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for over 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union.

Enlisting enzymes to battle dirt is not a new strategy. Over thousands of years, mushrooms and their fungi cousins have evolved into masters at nourishing themselves on dying trees, fallen branches and other materials. They break down these difficult materials by secreting enzymes into their hosts. Even before anyone knew what enzymes were, they were used in brewing and cheese making, among other activities. Continue reading