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      Biochemists say enzyme tests are safer, more accurate

      When a biotech company in the Copper Country first began working with enzyme-based chemical analysis nearly two decades ago, most of their colleagues didn't understand. Now their methods are considered cutting edge.

      This summer, biochemists at the Nitrate Elimination Company in Lake Linden are working with a new enzyme to help them develop a better way to test for phosphate levels in a lab or in the field.

      "It TMll help farmers put down enough fertilizer to get a good yield of their crop, but not enough that it leads to runoff and water pollution," says Vice President Ellen Campbell.

      Work began in May when the company received a $90,000 grant from USDA. The money allowed them to hire two additional scientists to work on the project.

      "We insert a gene into bacteria and then get the bacteria to produce a protein," says project manager Gui Barbier. "The protein is used to detect phosphate."

      The company intends to eventually package their product as a kit similar to the nitrate test they already sell. It would include all of the tubes and substances necessary to perform a color indicator test that is environmentally safe and easy to use.

      "Enzymes can find a needle in a hay stack," Campbell says. "They only react with what they're supposed to react with. It doesn't matter how complicated, it'll detect what you need to find."

      When the initial grant work is completed this fall, the company will be able to apply for another grant to fund the project's second phase. That would provide them with $375,000 over the next two years to use to streamline production and get their phosphate tests on the market.