Chemistry, Nature’s Way

Developing biodegradable alternatives to industrial chemicals

Richard Gross, chaired professor in the Biocatalysis and Metabolic Engineering Constellation, is also the founder and chief technology officer of SyntheZyme LLC, a chemical company that uses plant feedstocks and biocatalytic transformations to develop biodegradable alternatives to petrochemical-based industrial chemicals Last month, SyntheZyme signed a collaboration and licensing agreement with DSM Nutritional Products, a subsidiary of Royal DSM, a global materials science corporation. According to Gross, “They are a terrific fit for our biosurfactants technology. DSM understands the market and competitive landscape, and has the infrastructure to help us move our technology from the laboratory to real commercial products.”

Richard Gross

Richard Gross

With a unique platform that involves a yeast fermentation process followed by a low-cost chemo-enzymatic modification, SyntheZyme is developing commercially important surfactants for a wide range of applications.

Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension between two immiscible liquids, and are used commonly in agriculture, medicine, foodstuffs, cosmetics, and detergents, and to remediate hydrocarbon pollution such as dispersing oil spills. Because the modifications of SyntheZyme biosurfactants are minor and introduce groups that will be easily removed by microbes, Gross believes the resulting products will be non-toxic and environmentally biodegradable, unlike many current synthetically produced household and commercial surfactant products.

Gross’ research has shown that SyntheZyme’s biosurfactant products can deliver potent antimicrobial properties. For agricultural use as biopesticides, these products protect plants from disease or pathogen infection, but since they are nontoxic and biodegrade, the risk of bioaccumulation in soil or runoff water is eliminated. Other biosurfactants developed by SyntheZyme are highly active against human pathogenic diseases, so they could be used in household or even hospital cleaning formulations, and their incorporation into products such as cosmetics would protect the products from spoilage, while protecting the user from exposure to pathogenic organisms.

So much work has been done in developing applications for enzymes in the pharmaceutical industry to make drug molecules, I was curious about how we could use enzyme-catalysis in areas not currently being explored. I decided to merge my interest in polymers, natural materials, and enzymes.—Richard Gross

Gross’ long-standing research interest is in polymers and their applications in biodegradable plastics, “including medical polymers that can bioresorb after being used for tissue engineering, wound healing, or carrying bioactive molecules that control how cells differentiate.

“I was also always interested in enzymes and their extraordinary ability to function as catalysts, and I started to think about how to use them for a wider range of applications,” he said. “So much work has been done in developing applications for enzymes in the pharmaceutical industry to make drug molecules, I was curious about how we could use enzyme-catalysis in areas not currently being explored. I decided to merge my interest in polymers, natural materials, and enzymes. Very important to this work is biocatalysis, because of the powerful chemistry enzymes can perform under mild and environmentally friendly conditions.”

In accepting his position as a professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Rensselaer last year, Gross moved his business from Brooklyn to the labs at the University at Albany’s East Campus in Rensselaer. While balancing teaching and creating a small business is challenging, Gross has found reciprocal benefits.

“SyntheZyme has given me the opportunity to learn what it takes to convert laboratory innovation into practical products. This gives me a lot to think about in designing new projects for students that are scientifically challenging, but also have the potential to lead to commercially viable technologies.”

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