This article by Rick Le Renard was originally published in 2015, Garden Culture Magazine Issue 6. It originally appeared under the title, Why should we use Enzymes.
What are enzymes? Why are so many fertilizer companies adding enzymes to their ever-expanding list of essential supplements?
Enzymes are extremely small, yet powerful proteins made of complex chains of amino acids folded in shapes reminiscent of Pac-Man. Simply said, enzymes have the power to chop things into smaller parts. They are able to break down, modify, and even create things! Naturally occurring, and necessary to all life forms, without them, there would be no life – not as we know it anyways.
The digestive process is the most commonly known use of enzymes. The various enzymes along our digestive tract convert what we eat into essential substances our bodies require to function. Starting with the amylase in saliva, which breaks down starches into simpler sugars, and on to the others responsible for breaking almost everything that we eat. Basically, enzymes permit us to convert food into energy. When we’re missing a certain type of enzymes, we are faced with digestive problems. For example, those who have no or low levels of lactase in their stomach have issues digesting dairy products, or more precisely, the lactose they contain.
Their mysterious powers have been known, and studied for centuries, while millenniums ago, early humans knew nothing about them, but they were certainly taking advantage of their powers using them in cooking, brewing, and production of various foods, like cheese. In nature, bacteria, microbes, and fungus excrete enzymes, and they live in symbiosis with other living things. Their complexity and almighty powers have even been cited by religious creationist groups to deny the theory of evolution. They claim that “Enzymes are so perfect and so essential to life, only God could have created them. Enzymes are created within living organisms, it is therefore impossible for life to have appeared on its own.” While debating with creationists is an amazing waste of time, and in the past, they were right about mankind not being able to create enzymes.
For many years the very complexity of it all made it impossible for even the best scientist to create enzymes. We were only able to harvest them from living organisms. Unfortunately for the creationists, recent technological breakthroughs have made it possible to create enzymes from “scratch.” However, it is still much more economical to extract them via fermentation, and other processes with specific bacterial and fungal combinations, than to manufacture them.
After alcohol production, the most common usage of industrially harvested enzymes started in the early 1900s in making laundry and dish detergent. Industries were then able to extract and isolate varieties that were good at breaking down greases and dirt. Their presence helps in reducing the need for phosphorous in detergent, hence helping in saving our water supply from the cyanobacteria (a.k.a. blue-green algae). Enzymatic compounds are also widely used in septic tanks to further break down what we didn’t break down with our own enzymes. They are not relegated only to gross cleaning jobs. We also use enzymes in very delicate medical tasks, like purifying the blood.
Why should we use enzymes?
As complex as they are, enzymes are really limited in the scope of actions they can achieve, each type being only able to produce one action on one single thing. For instance, the cellulase enzyme can only break down cellulose, nothing else. While enzymes may be able to repeat their tasks millions of times they can also be deactivated or even destroyed; by other enzymes, change in pH, temperature, etc. Naturally, these variables make packaging enzymes for retail sale a real challenge, particularly if a product contains many different types. The goal is that they stay activated or useful. This is why sometimes we buy enzyme products and are rightfully justified to wonder if this actually does something, because in many products out there the enzymes are already “dead” in the bottle – long before they reach your nutrient solution. Supplement makers can’t control what happens between their loading dock and your garden.
What’s in it for us gardeners?
Why should we use enzymes? Are they all the same? What is the difference between different brands? Are they safe for our plants, and the consumables we grow?
There is no doubt, adding enzymes to your feeding schedule is beneficial to plants. It aids in simple tasks like getting rid of dead roots, or very complex ones like helping the plant accelerate its development by assisting in hormone biosynthesis. Most manufacturers are quite guarded when it comes to revealing the specifics about their product’s composition. Often enzyme products use generic marketing words like “improves plant health” and shy away from specific claims.
The most common reason for including enzymes in high-intensity gardening inputs is to keep the medium “clean.” These types of enzymes act as a protection or an insurance against disease. Some enzyme products break down roots, others break down bad bacteria and other detrimental life forms. In converting their targets into sugars and minerals, they also improve the soil structures by eliminating dead material to create new air and water channels before it rots, and attracts pathogens. The all too popular chemical alternatives can also keep things quite clean, but leave a poisonous trail behind…
It may be very difficult to prove that the enzyme product you bought really does anything. One simple DIY test to find out if the product was able to break down two components of dead root material, Cellulose, and Hemicellulose. The first by soaking a tiny piece of paper (cellulose test), and the other with applesauce (hemicellulose). By seeing the paper break down, and the applesauce becomes liquid – we could visually assess that at least those two enzymes were there, and working.
However, if this test fails to break down paper or liquefy the applesauce, it does not mean the enzymatic product you bought is useless. It just means that Cellulase and Hemicellulase are not present (or active). As said earlier, there are many kinds of enzymes, each having a specific function on a specific target. We know plants generate enzymes for many functions, like creating hormones, and to a wider extent making photosynthesis work. Sometimes it’s good to combine various enzyme products together, certain mixes, when designed for specific growing techniques can truly maximize a plant’s growth potential.
Some products sold as enzymes are not even enzymes, but blends of microbes and fungi. When working properly, they will populate and secrete various enzymes. But this is only possible if the microbes are still alive, and able to reproduce fast enough to be useful.
So we know enzymes are good for plants. There are certain ones we can test for, but it is nearly impossible for growers to test for complex enzymic actions, like bacterial degradation, and hormone production. For this, we will need to have some faith in the manufacturers.