Cheeses represent a traditional way of preserving a perishable foodstuff, milk. Cheese is made by addition of milk to a starter culture of lactic acid bacteria whic acidify the milk to about pH 5.5. In addition, milk clotting enzymes called rennet are added, resulting in a coagulated protein gel trapping other proteins and fat. Traditionally the rennet used is a preparation of several enzymes isolated from calf stomach. Modern cheeses making, however, increasingly relies upon microbial sources of the most important enzyme, the protease chymosin. This is now produced by recombinant micro-organisms.
Milk consists of water, fat, protein, phosphate, lactose, citric acid and inorganics such as calcium phosphate. The protein component of milk can be divided into two groups, the casein fraction and the whey proteins:
The casein proteins are the ones that will form the curd during cheese making. Casein proteins tend not to have a particularly compact globular structure and they tend to be rather susceptible to proteolysis. As they are all phosphorylated, they bind the calcium content of the milk and exisit in the form of casein micelles.
The chymosin content of the rennin causes a specific and rapid cleaveage of the kappa-casein component of the casein micelles. This protein stabilises the micelles and after cleavage, the casein proteins precipitate under the influence of the calcium ions. Chymosin specifically recognises the sequence from His 98 to Lys 111 and cleaves the peptide bond between Phe 105 and Met 106 in the kappa-casein chain:
In addition to its role in milk clotting, chymosin is also involved in the proteolytic changes occurring during ripening.
Bovine chymosin is an acid protease produced in the fourth stomach of the cow in the form of a precursor. After a series of proteolysis events, the mature chymosin has a molecular weight of 35600 Da and exisits in one of two allelic forms, A and B, differing in the nature of the amino acid at position 244 (Asp or Gly). The A form has a slightly higher specific activity for kappa-casein but is marginally less stable than the B form.
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Microbial alternatives to bovine chymosin are very desirable due to their lower price and more stable availability as the supply of calf-rennet is in decline. In addition, vegetarians find the use of bovine rennet unacceptible. Suitable candidates are the proteases from Mucor miehei, Mucor pusillis and Endothia parasitica. All of these are acid proteases of similar structure to the bovine enzyme and all have the neccessary narrow specificity for kappa-casein. The biggest problem with these proteases is that they are not suitable for long ripening cheeses as they have a different range of non-specific activities than chymosin and do not produce the correct flavours on prolonged ripening.
The problems outlined above for chymosin and its microbial substitutes can be alleviated by cloning the bovine gene into a suitable production strain and producing the enzyme by fermentation.
The most important decisions to be made were the choice of host/vector system. There are several possibilities for a production host:
The chymosin gene was inserted into the K. lactis chromosome and the yeast is grown by fed-batch fermentation. After fermentation, the yeast is killed by addition of benzoic acid and the chymosin is isolated by filtration.