How Amino Acids are Manufactured

by Christine Hronec

The amino acid business is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. All twenty amino acids are sold, albeit
each in greatly different quantities. Amino acids are used as dietary supplements, animal feed additives,
flavor enhancers, and as specialty nutrients in the medical field. Glutamic acid, lysine and methionine account for the majority, by weight, of amino acids sold. While it is well known that whey protein manufactured as a byproduct during cheese production, many do not know that the method of manufacturing specific amino acids is drastically different.

The amino acid industry has its roots in food preparation practices in Japan. The major producers of amino acids are based in Japan, the US, South Korea, China and Europe Seaweeds had been used for centuries there and in other Asian countries as a flavoring ingredient. Three general approaches are used today for making amino acids: direct chemical synthesis, fermentation and bioconversion using enzymes. Choosing between processes depends on available technology, costs of raw material, market prices and sizes, cost of running fermentation versus synthesis reactions, and the environmental impact of the process itself.

All amino acids are primarily produced by fermentation, although other methods are available. Whether they will or not depends on the costs of competing technologies such as chemical synthesis or extraction from protein sources. Bacterial strains that produce amino acid are, with some exceptions, mainly derived from Corynebacterium sp., Bacillus sp. or E. coli. Strains used in production are wild-type natural overproducers, auxotrophic or regulatory mutants that have altered feedback inhibition pathways, or derepressed enzyme synthesis, and/or genetically engineered organisms that have multiple copies of genes encoding rate-limiting enzymes. These specialty processes attribute to the distinct variations in price from one amino acid to another as each one is made from a unique chemical process. The worldwide demand and production scale of each amino acid dictate the price. All these reasons make whey protein all the more an ideal supplement as it is the only source that naturally contains all 20 amino acids making it a complete protein.

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