Will there ever be another feed enzyme like phytase?

Phytase may have secured its prime position in poultry nutrition, but new enzyme developments will increasingly offer producers additional options.

Sustained productivity enhancement through enzyme toolboxes may be on the horizon. | (Krugloff | iStock.com)
Sustained productivity enhancement through enzyme toolboxes may be on the horizon. | (Krugloff | iStock.com)

The feed enzymes business boomed over the last 20 years. Of all the enzymes, phytase is the champion, the benchmark against which all others are measured. Today, it is ubiquitous in poultry diets, guarantees enhanced phosphorus utilization, and delivers measurable value and sustainability.

It wasn’t always an easy ride though. Tales from colleagues who pioneered the phytase business speak of tight economics, and much scepticism. But the persistence of individuals and companies to find the right path to manufacturing, application, and marketing was well founded.

It takes but a single spark for a product such as phytase to gain the traction it deserves. That spark could be a new environmental regulation, changed consumer demands or ingredient prices. Something that, in hindsight, was inevitable, but at the time felt like a real surprise. Once the spark was ignited, more innovators jumped in, paving the way for the bulk of the market.

The phytase market is now fully developed, and innovations have focused on enhancing molecule robustness and production economics. Incredibly, it has taken decades to understand the complex interactions between Ca and P, and only now are we at the verge of capturing the product’s full value.

A departure from the blockbuster model

Other feed enzyme classes, such as glycosyl hydrolases, the so-called carbohydrases, had a more turbulent adolescence. Wheat or rye viscosity reduction was by far the clearest effect of xylanase in the early days, boosting carbohydrases’ early status. Innovations focused then on enhancing the solubilization of fibre, a limitation to the nutrient release and absorption.

There has been undeniable success, especially when fibrous protein sources or grain-by products are used. However, variation in the energy contribution, particularly in lower fibre diets, has limited greater carbohydrases adoption across species.

Considering amino acids’ value in the diet and the improved feed efficiency and sustainability opportunities, protease is probably the enzyme class with the greatest potential for innovation and penetration in poultry. As product characteristics and application knowledge advance, it is likely that more companies will capture the value of enhanced protein utilization with proteases.

Nonetheless, it will take highly consistent results across diets for protease to reach phytase-like status globally. It might be possible with the next waves of innovation and higher commodity prices, but it might take the shape of an ecosystem of different enzymes sub-classes, specialized in different ingredients, occupying different market spaces, and not, necessarily, one blockbuster enzyme.

Other enzymes, such as amylases and mannanases, while unlikely to reach phytase-like status, will continue delivering significant value. Even lipases, alpha galactosidases, and pectinases, could deliver significant value in parts of the world without reaching high penetration levels.

What is clear to me is that nutritional feed enzymes would benefit from changing focus towards precision nutrition and flexible solutions. Unfortunately, slow, and cumbersome registration processes in some markets are limiting the availability of additional enzymes classes, especially those with narrower applications, which could have a place in diet-specific solutions.

The next frontier for feed enzymes

The next frontier in enzyme innovation is targeting gut substrates beyond those found in feed ingredients. An interesting example is a recently launched muramidase targeting peptidoglycans in bacterial debris. Developments in molecular biology will, in future, allow identification of more innovative, high value targets for enzymes. Suppliers’ ability to fulfil unmet producers’ needs will determine success.

We might not see another phytase-like blockbuster in the near future, but we will, most likely, see a continuous flow of innovations using biotechnology, enzymes included, with very precise targets.

Crucially, we are starting to see greater specialization in poultry nutrition companies towards science-driven enzyme solutions, providing sustainable productivity enhancements via the effective use of a wide-ranging, evolving enzyme toolbox.

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