Source: Chemical & Engineering News
Japan has a rich tradition of developing materials through fermentation. Large companies such as Kyowa Hakko characterize fermentation as their core business.
These companies have traditionally concentrated on food additives and multiclient products, rather than the advanced custom intermediates emphasized by Europe's biocatalysis experts, but a few of Japan's leading firms are now attempting to crack this market as well.
For many decades, the Japanese have been impressed by the potential of fermentation processes to produce items other than food. For example, when Japan was at war in the 1930s, Kyowa Hakko was formed with a mission to find ways to produce aircraft fuel by fermenting sugar.
To a large extent, Japanese expertise in the area of fermentation derives from the country's unique foods and beverages. The manufacture of soy sauce, tofu, miso, sake, natto, and Japanese pickles, to name a few, has provided companies the opportunity to endow themselves with vast banks of microorganisms peculiar to Japan.
Kyowa Hakko's expertise with fermentation derives from food additives and ingredients. In 1956, the company was the first to develop a fermentation process for MSG, says Tomoki Azuma, associate general manager of the development department. In earlier decades, MSG was produced through an extraction method. In 1958, Kyowa Hakko also invented a lysine fermentation process, Azuma says.
Kyowa Hakko still makes lysine, but nowadays its main business is the making of amino acids and pharmaceuticals through proprietary fermentation processes. About half of production is exported, added Mr. Azuma.
Unlike other Japanese manufacturers, Kyowa Hakko does not cater to drug companies by designing biocatalytic processes to replace more complex chemical ones. Kyowa Hakko's focus, rather, is to develop new products by means of fermentation. About one-quarter of the firm's 7,800 employees work in R&D, and about 200 people perform biochemical research.
About four years ago, Kyowa Hakko began implementing a biocatalytic process for the manufacture of L-hydroxyproline. The compound, traditionally extracted from animal protein, is used in cosmetics or as a chiral drug intermediate. Extraction from animal protein may pose a health hazard if the animals used were afflicted with mad cow disease.