UK Catalysis Hub


Reaction Engineering Challenges in Biological Catalysis

Prof John Woodley

High selectivity is the primary characteristic of reactions catalyzed by enzymes. Likewise, such reactions usually take place under relatively benign conditions. These two features make biocatalysis of great interest to synthetic chemists, as a complement to conventional catalytic methods [1]. However, of even greater importance is the very special ability to design enzymes with desirable properties based on protein engineering technologies. This opens the possibility of using new reactants in established reactions or even catalyzing entirely new reactions. These highly desirable features mean that over the last 30 years several hundred biocatalytic processes have been implemented in industry, in particular in the production of small-molecule pharmaceuticals. The next development will be to apply biocatalysis to lower value products, where there have only been a handful of success stories to date. Effective enzyme production at large scale means that the cost of enzymes is decreasing. Nevertheless, one of the obstacles to overcome here will be the effective integration of biocatalysis into existing syntheses, at matching reaction rates and with matching reactant and product concentrations. 

In this lecture I will outline some of the most important reaction engineering challenges [2] for the further development and implementation of enzyme-based chemical production, giving examples of recent work from our laboratory [3,4].


  1. Sheldon, R.A. and Woodley, J.M. 2018. The Role of Biocatalysis in Sustainable Chemistry. Chem. Rev. DOI:10.1021/acs.chemrev.7b00203.
  2. Ringborg, R.H. and Woodley, J.M. 2016. The application of reaction engineering to biocatalysis. Reaction Chem. Engng. 1, 10-22.
  3. Ringborg, R.H., Toftgaard Pedersen, A. and Woodley, J.M.  2017. Automated determination of oxygen dependent enzyme kinetics in a tube-in-tube microreactor. ChemCatChem, 9, 3285-3288.
  4. Woodley, J.M. 2017. Integrating Protein Engineering with Process Design for Biocatalysis. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 376, 20170062.