Chitin is one of the most abundant biomolecules on earth, occurring in crustacean shells and cell walls of fungi. While the polysaccharide is threatening to pollute coastal ecosystems in the form of accumulating shell-waste, it has the potential to be converted into highly profitable derivatives with applications in medicine, biotechnology, and wastewater treatment, among others. Traditionally this is still mostly done by the employment of aggressive chemicals, yielding low quality while producing toxic by-products. In the last decades, the enzymatic conversion of chitin has been on the rise, albeit still not on the same level of cost-effectiveness compared to the traditional methods due to its multi-step character. Another severe drawback of the biotechnological approach is the highly ordered structure of chitin, which renders it nigh impossible for most glycosidic hydrolases to act upon. So far, only the Auxiliary Activity 10 family (AA10), including lytic polysaccharide monooxygenases (LPMOs), is known to hydrolyse native recalcitrant chitin, which spares the expensive first step of chemical or mechanical pre-treatment to enlarge the substrate surface. The main advantages of enzymatic conversion of chitin over conventional chemical methods are the biocompability and, more strikingly, the higher product specificity, product quality, and yield of the process. Products with a higher Mw
due to no unspecific depolymerisation besides an exactly defined degree and pattern of acetylation can be yielded. This provides a new toolset of thousands of new chitin and chitosan derivatives, as the physio-chemical properties can be modified according to the desired application. This review aims to provide an overview of the biotechnological tools currently at hand, as well as challenges and crucial steps to achieve the long-term goal of enzymatic conversion of native chitin into specialty chemical products.
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