What exactly is an enzyme, anyway? Enzymes can be found almost everywhere—they are inside our bodies and hidden within the soil beneath our feet. There are even several products containing enzymes sold for use in the garden. But many people aren’t exactly sure what they are and how they work.

What are Enzymes?

An enzyme is a substance produced by a living organism that acts as a catalyst to bring about a specific bio-chemical reaction. When a substance acts as a catalyst, it increases the rate at which a chemical reaction occurs. Many enzymes are created by micro-organisms like bacteria and are involved in the decomposition of organic matter. Enzymes help break larger molecules into smaller ones by acting as the catalyst that allows the micro-organism to complete the task at a faster rate. The enzyme itself does not undergo any permanent chemical change. The effect enzymes have on microbial life inside our bodies and in the natural world makes them crucial to the nutrient-recycling process.

Enzymes play a valuable role in normal life functions. One prime example of this in the human body is the important role enzymes play in digesting and converting food into smaller, more useful components like sugars (carbohydrates), proteins, vitamins and minerals. The process begins with enzymes found in the saliva and continues through the stomach and the rest of the digestive tract. The material that is targeted and broken down with the help of an enzyme is called the substrate.

Each enzyme interacts with specific microbes and substrates. For example, the enzyme amylese, found in saliva, will bind to a starch and, working with bacteria, accelerates a process called hydrolysis (the breaking down of a compound due to a reaction with water), with the end result being maltose or malt sugar. Digestive enzymes are perfectly designed to assist in the digestion and assimilation of whole, unprocessed fruits, vegetables and meats. Processed foods have been molecularly altered from their original state and are therefore slower and harder for our bodies to digest because enzymes are not designed to encourage rapid decomposition of these types of foods.

Just as there are enzymes in the human body and in the plants we consume, there are also enzymes in the soil. Soil enzymes are primarily produced by soil bacteria and fungi and act as a catalyst for the decomposition of organic matter and plant residues. Similar to enzymes in the digestive tract, soil enzymes help increase the rate at which organic matter is broken down into plant-available nutrients and other beneficial substances. Soil enzymes also have a certain substrate they are designed to interact with.

For instance, the enzyme amidase allows microbes to convert carbon and nitrogen compounds in the soil into plant-available ammonium (NH4). Another example is the soil enzyme beta glucosidase, which encourages the breakdown of carbon compounds, splitting the glucose (a sugar) from glucoside (the substrate). The remaining glucose, a carbohydrate, then becomes an energy source for micro-organisms.

Having enzymes in your soil is important because of their impact on the processing of nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen and sulfur. Soil enzyme numbers are directly related to the amount of microbial activity in the soil. Soils heavy in organic matter, such as clay soils, have a higher level of microbial activity and thus contain higher levels of soil enzymes. Enzyme activity also correlates with soil moisture levels, as overly saturated soils contain lower levels of microbial life.

The same can be said for drought-stricken soils as well. Organic forms of soil cultivation will encourage the growth and longevity of multiple types of soil micro-organisms, whereas inorganically managed soils can hinder the growth of and limit the variety of micro-organisms.

Enzymes and the Indoor Gardener

So just how do enzymes help the modern grower? The absence of enzymes in a soil can lead to a reduction in the processes that affect plant health and nutrition, but soil enzyme and micro-organism levels take time to build up to effective levels. When growers cultivate plants without the help of soil—for instance, growing plants in containers, especially if they have a relatively fast growth cycle—there is less time for a substantial microbial population to form. Adding supplemental micro-organisms and enzymes can boost the level of microbial activity within the rooting media.

This could be beneficial for growers using organic, soilless growing mediums and organic fertilization methods. The rate at which an organic fertilizer provides plant-available nutrients to the roots is directly related to the amount of microbial life and activity near the roots. Adding enzymes can help speed up the process of breaking down organic compounds. They can also help prevent excess organic materials, such as dead root cells, from building up and causing problems in the root zone. Soil enzymes and micro-organisms work together as a preventative measure to ensure a healthy root system.

There are several different brands of soil enzyme supplements sold for use in indoor gardens and most make the same types of claims. They mainly claim to help break down organic matter within the root zone and speed up the conversion of such matter into plant-available forms of elemental nutrients. Most manufacturers suggest growers use them at the beginning stages of the flowering cycle to “clean up” the rooting medium and provide a small nutrient boost for the plant.

The majority of these products do not list the specific enzymes used in the formulation. However, due to the type of activity these products claim to initiate, it is highly likely that the enzymes used are similar to those used in small pond water treatments that are meant to help decompose excess organic material.

Everything is part of a system, and each component of the system has a certain job to complete. In the soil, enzymes have an important role to play in helping plants absorb nutrients from their surroundings. By harnessing this important component, indoor gardeners can grow plants in ways that are as close to nature as possible.