Enzyme inhibition is a reaction between a molecule and an enzyme that blocks the action of the enzyme, either temporarily or permanently, depending on the type of enzyme inhibitor involved. This process occurs in the natural world all the time, and it has a number of applications for humans, including in the formulation of pharmaceuticals and the development of certain products. There are several types of enzyme inhibition involving different types of molecules and processes.
Non-specific enzyme inhibition involves exposure to a molecule not specifically targeting an enzyme that will still have an inhibitory effect. For example, many proteins break down in response to alcohol exposure, and introducing alcohol to an organism can inhibit the activities of a number of enzymes. Acids have similar effects. Likewise, heat tends to denature enzymes, pulling the protein strands apart and rendering them ineffective; this is why meat softens with cooking, as the proteins in the meat are denatured and start to break down.
With specific enzyme inhibition, a molecule interacts directly with the proteins in the enzyme. Irreversible enzyme inhibitors have the ability to permanently change the structure of the protein, and the process cannot be undone. Reversible enzyme inhibition can temporarily block the action of an enzyme but will not be permanent in nature. This process can occur in a number of ways, including through competitive inhibition, where the molecule is similar to another molecule that interacts with the enzyme, and it competes for receptor sites, making the enzyme less active or rendering it useless by preventing it from latching onto the molecule it is designed to work with.
Pharmaceutical companies use this process to their advantage in the development of medications. Most therapeutic drugs work via enzyme inhibition. When the patient takes the medication and the molecules are released in the body, they interact with enzymes to stop harmful processes like uncontrolled inflammation. In laboratories, researchers are constantly working with new compounds to see if they have potential uses and to tease out their contents so they can be understood.
Enzyme inhibition can have other applications. Pest control often relies on this process, by exposing unwanted pests to chemicals that will disrupt chemical processes inside their bodies. Likewise, many herbicides interfere with the internal biology of target plants to prevent them from growing or kill them off. Inhibition of enzymes can also be used in the manufacture of products from food stabilizers to chemical water treatments.