About the University’s Biocatalysis Initiative

The University of Minnesota Biocatalysis Initiative was created to focus and fund research in the areas of industrial biocatalysis and chemical biotechnology – biological processes which promise a safer and more sustainable future.

The University of Minnesota has a long tradition and world-class expertise in the science of biocatalysis, the use of biological catalysts and processes to transform plant material into useful products. Biocatalysis enables renewable resources, such as forests, grasslands, and the wheat and corn raised by farmers, to become the new raw materials for our production and energy needs. Some biocatalytic processes – such as brewing – have been employed on an industrial scale for millennia, and others of great importance – such as penicillin production – have been devised within the last century. However, it is only now that modern collaborative approaches to the biological, chemical, engineering, and information sciences are making possible a broad-ranging understanding and utilization of biocatalysis. Given Minnesota’s scientific strengths, agricultural resources, and companies active in exploiting biocatalytic processes, the University has positioned itself as a hub of biocatalysis-related research. This provides a resource to academics and biocatalysis-based industry.

A critical element of the President’s Interdisciplinary Initiative on Biocatalysis is the development of a strong interdisciplinary research program in biocatalysis that will build new research clusters in two areas: Industrial Biocatalysis and Chemical Biotechnology. Both of these areas rest on a common platform of chemical and biochemical science, genetics, chemical engineering (including microbial and bio-based products engineering), genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics.

Industrial Biocatalysis includes:

  • Generation of biochemicals for industrial processes;
  • Transformation of biomass such as corn, soybeans, and forest biomass into commercially useful chemicals, polymers, plastics, and other materials;
  • Large-scale bioremediation of polluted soils and waters by microbial processes


Chemical Biotechnology includes:

  • Chemical Genetics – bioprobe/drug design and discovery using the tools of molecular modeling; synthetic chemistry; nucleic acid chemistry; and bioorganic and bioinorganic chemistry,
  • Biomaterials Engineering – biomicroelectronics, tissue engineering, cellular engineering, and nanobiotechnology.


Biocatalysis differs from standard industrial chemistry and chemical engineering in that the biochemical transformations typically proceed under less extreme temperature conditions, require little or no petroleum-based energy and raw material, are more environmentally benign, and can be designed to produce remarkably complex products with great specificity and minimal toxic byproducts.

What is biocatalysis?

Biocatalysis is the use of biological catalysts called enzymes to transform plant material into useful products. Plants themselves contain enzymes which convert carbon dioxide in the air to nutritious carbohydrates such as sugar and starch. Selected enzymes are typically used to reduce reaction time to a matter of seconds for biological transformations that might otherwise require several months to reach completion. And because they remain unchanged in the process, one enzyme molecule can be used to catalyze many transformations. Biocatalysis differs from standard industrial chemistry and chemical engineering in that the biochemical transformation of enzymes requires less extreme temperatures, requires little or no additional energy input, and produces less hazardous byproducts.