JAPAN—Researchers at the Department of Applied Biological Science, Faculty of Science and Technology, Tokyo University of Science, have developed a novel enzyme that has made a breakthrough in the production of natural vanillin, a widely used flavoring compound.

Vanillin, the primary flavor compound in vanilla extract, is traditionally sourced from the seed pods of vanilla plants. However, challenges such as limited plant cultivation, low yields, and climatic restrictions have hindered its commercial production, leading to a surge in prices.

Professor Toshiki Furuya and his graduate students, Shizuka Fujimaki and Satsuki Sakamoto, addressed these challenges by successfully developing an enzyme capable of generating vanillin from plant-derived ferulic acid.

Ferulic acid, abundant in agricultural waste like rice bran and wheat bran, serves as the raw material for vanillin production in this innovative process.

When mixed with ferulic acid at room temperature, the developed enzyme catalyzes the conversion process, offering a simple and environmentally friendly method for producing flavor compounds.

Through genetic engineering techniques, the researchers modified the molecular structure of an oxidase enzyme called “Ado.” Structural modeling analysis guided the prediction of amino acid changes in Ado, enabling its interaction with ferulic acid.

After a series of experiments and optimizations, a mutant protein with enhanced conversion activity was identified. This engineered enzyme demonstrated high catalytic efficiency and affinity, producing vanillin on a gram scale per liter of reaction solution.

Simple and sustainable process

Unlike other oxidases, the engineered enzyme does not require cofactors for conversion and operates efficiently with just the mixing of enzyme, ferulic acid, and air (molecular oxygen) at room temperature.

Furthermore, the enzyme exhibited conversion activity towards other agricultural waste compounds, such as p-coumaric acid and sinapic acid, derived from lignin degradation.

With no microbial or plant-derived enzymes demonstrating industrial-scale conversion of ferulic acid to vanillin, the enzyme developed in this study holds significant promise for enabling the commercial and economically viable production of natural vanillin.

Professor Furuya emphasized the sustainable approach of harnessing microorganisms and enzymes to derive valuable compounds from renewable plant-based resources, underscoring its potential to minimize environmental impact.

In collaboration with a company, the research team is actively working towards implementing vanillin production using the newly developed enzyme. Their efforts aim to translate this research into practical applications, furthering the sustainability and accessibility of natural vanillin production on a commercial scale.

The study, published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, marks a milestone in the quest for sustainable flavor compound production, offering new possibilities for the food industry and environmental conservation efforts.

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