What are enzymes? How do they work and what do they do?

Enzymes help to accelerate chemical reactions in the human body. They bind to molecules and modify them in specific ways. They are necessary for breathing, digestion of food, muscle and nerve function, and also in thousands of other roles.

The basics

Enzymes are made of proteins folded into complex shapes. They can also be joined to other non-protein substances and are present throughout the body. The chemical reactions that keep us alive – our metabolism – are based on the work performed by enzymes.

Enzymes accelerate (catalyze) chemical reactions. In some cases, enzymes can make a chemical reaction millions of times faster than it would be without it.

A substrate binds to the active location of an enzyme and is converted into products. As soon as the products leave the active area, the enzyme is ready to adhere to a new substrate and repeat the process.

What do enzymes do?

  • In the digestive system – Enzymes help the body break down larger complex molecules into smaller molecules, such as glucose, so that the body can use them as fuel.
  • DNA copying – Every cell in your body contains DNA. Every time a cell divides, the DNA must be copied. Enzymes help in this process by unwrapping the double helix of DNA and copying the information.
  • In the liver – The enzymes of the liver break down toxins in the body, so that it eliminates them more easily. To do this, a number of enzymes are used.

How do enzymes work?

The model “lock and key” was first proposed in 1894. In this model, the active point of the enzyme has a certain shape, and only the substrate will fit in it, like the key in the lock. This model has now been updated and is called the induced customization model.

In this model, the active center of the enzyme changes shape as it interacts with the substrate. Once the substrate is fully locked and in the exact position, the catalysis can begin.

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The perfect conditions

Enzymes can only work under certain conditions. Most enzymes in the human body work best at about 37 ° C – body temperature. At lower temperatures, they will still work but much slower. Similarly, enzymes can only work in a certain pH range (acid/alkaline). Their preference depends on where they are in the body.

For example, enzymes in the intestines work better at 7.5 pH, while enzymes in the stomach work better at pH 2 because the stomach is much more acidic. If the temperature is too high or if the environment is too acidic or alkaline, the enzyme changes shape.

This alters the shape of the active position so that the substrates cannot bind to it – the enzyme has been denatured.