The primary function of an amylase enzyme is to break down starches, which results in simple sugars such as fructose, maltose, glucose and dextrine. This function of amylase occurs in the human body, but is also put to use in food and beverage processing and other industries.
Produced by the endocrine glands in people and animals, amylase is necessary because starch molecules typically are much too large for the body to use in their complete form. Enzymes such as amylase allow for these molecules to break at specific points. The body can use the resultant simple sugars for energy. Without amylase breaking down starch in this way, the majority of foods would be unusable.
Amylase is thought to have some connections to evolution. Some scientists believe that amylase levels in people rose over time to accommodate the need to adjust dietary intake for survival. This concept has been supported through genetic research. Amylase allows humans to eat foods aside from protein and fruit, and in theory, more food choices translates to less risk of die-out.
This enzyme is present in saliva, and in the mouth, the function of amylase is to act as a catalyst for digestion. The tongue can detect the sugars the amylase produces, which is the reason why starches taste slightly sweet as a person chews. The pancreas also makes amylase which travels through both the pancreatic and common bile ducts into the duodenum. There, the primary work of amylase continues, with the enzyme breaking down complex carbohydrates. To a much lesser degree, amylase is also present in the fallopian tubes.
Amylase can be measured in bodily fluids such as urine and blood, which can provide clues as to certain medical conditions. For instance, the pancreas produces amylase, so abnormal amylase can be a sign of pancreatic inflammation.
In food preparation, the function of amylase is the same as in the body. The breakdown of starches allows for the creation of items such as glucose syrups, which are used as an additive in a vast array of products such as ketchup. Brewers and cooks use amylase to produce items such as beer, bread and cakes.
Another area where the function of amylase is evident is in cleaning. The fact the amylase can break down starches makes it extremely useful for removing starch-based spots on clothing or other items. In the farming industry, amylase is added to animal feeds to help the animals access more of the sugar in the starch-based feed for energy, thereby reducing costs for farmers.