Special Arctic DNA spurs high tech business

Dr. Peter Myumuhendo is a member of the small, international Barentzymes team.

Enzymes, vital proteins that can be used industrially, are a growing business. A new company believes the cold waters of the Barents Sea could hold a tremendous variety of specialized enzymes that could function industrially in new ways.


In the freezing waters of the Barents Sea lies an invaluable resource, and it’s not oil.

It’s a resource that has actually evolved in the Arctic water as a direct result of its challenging environment, one that demands extreme toughness from its organisms. 

Dr. Jan Buch Andersen and his team are busy exploiting the treasure encoded by DNA that only exists in the north. 

“You need special enzymes to survive,” says Andersen, who just launched a company in Tromsø, Barentzymes, which specializes in finding and producing the enzymes only found in polar organisms.

Enzymes – specialized proteins that facilitate vital chemical reactions in cells – are becoming big business. Last year a German chemical company, BASF, acquired US enzyme firm Verenium for nearly €50 million. In 2012, the Dutch firm DMS purchased Cargill’s cultures and enzymes business for €85 million. 

Humans have used the natural enzymes that break down plant material to make beer, wine, vinegar and paper for millennia. But that’s just the start.

Andersen envisions a world in which enzymes give humans the power to make biofuels – and to feed a growing population that’s currently living on less and less land as soil erodes and deserts grow.

“You can in principle increase food production twofold,” he says. That’s because much of the food we produce goes to waste. Enzymes can break that waste down into its basic components so that it can be recycled into useable products like animal feeds or food additives.

The key to the expanding role of enzymes in the bioeconomy is variety, and that’s where the Arctic comes in. It’s the Klondike of biological variation: an unexplored trove of useful genes, perfected over eons to be cold-active, pressure-active, or salt-active.

Dr. Jan Buch Andersen believes the Baernts Sea is full of unique enzymes that may have new applications.

Just like the gold prospectors of the 19th century, Andersen and his team of “bioprospectors” may only need one good strike to hit it big, analyzing samples from mud, water, or even the contents of a fish’s digestive system.  Their chances aren’t bad, either. A recent Danish expedition that the company invested in brought back 2,700 new genes with the information to make enzymes. Those 2,700 new enzymes could have any number of applications.

Andersen estimates that currently just five proteases (enzymes that break down proteins) make up 80 per cent of the world market. He says that’s not enough.

“We will need about 50 to 100 proteases to cover our needs,” he says. Currently those five enzymes are dictating what applications are possible, but developing new entrants to the market could change that.

Barentzymes is Andersen’s fourth startup, with a team comprised of professionals from seven different countries. All but two of his employees have PhDs; it’s a high-tech business, founded with the biggest investment ever in biotechnology in northern Norway, according to Andersen.

Biotechnology is growing in Norway and abroad with incredible strides in ease of access. For example, sequencing the human genome was an international, $3 billion process that took 13 years. It remains the world’s largest collaborative biological project. Today, to sequence a person’s entire genome costs $1000.

Pricey lab equipment like this high-throughput DNA sequencing machine is shared among the handful of organizations at the University of Tromso’s research facility.

Barentzymes uses some of that technology to analyze the genetic information of the entirety of samples collected from frigid polar waters. That “metagenomic” information gives them a database of genes possessed by the organisms, unlocking the secrets of their specialized enzymes.

“Some of it is very Brave New World,” says Andersen, but he doesn’t seem worried.

“I can’t be anything but enthusiastic.”