Chemistry Question #690

Andrew Brown, a 8 year old male from New york asks on March 1, 2002,

What does the word enzyme mean and how does it work in laundry detergent?

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The answer

Barry Shell answered on March 1, 2002

Websters Dictionary says an enzyme is "any of numerous complex proteins that are produced by living cells and catalyze specific biochemical reactions at body temperatures." To put this into something an 8-year-old can understand, let's start with the idea of a chemical reaction. You mix two things together and there's a poof of smoke and they change into something else. This is a chemical reaction. But what happens if you want a reaction between two chemicals, but when you mix them together nothing happens? You have to do something to make them react. Usually you heat them or shake them really hard, and this sometimes works. But sometimes it doesn't. There's another very tricky way, however. It's called catalysis. That means you add a third chemical to the mix that doesn't actually react with the chemicals, but it does something very special. It holds the chemical you want to react in a special way either in a certain direction, or in a certain angle, or it might bend it a bit or something, and because of this, the reaction happens. Now enzymes are nature's way of doing this. All life is a result of a series of complicated chemical reactions happening all the time. Enzymes are made by plants and animals so that these reactions can occur inside plants or animals at normal temperatures, not too hot, and not too cold. So to sum up, an enzyme is a chemical, usually a very big complex natural molecule, a protein, that holds molecules in special ways to speed up chemical reactions.

When you do laundry, the enzymes in the detergent bend certain kinds of dirt molecules, especially things that are natural like grass stains, blood, gravy, chocolate, or hold them in special ways so they react with the detergent and release from your clothes more easily.

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