Enzymes and catalysts both speed up reactions, but they’re not the same.

Enzymes are specific biological catalysts, while catalysts are general substances that speed up reactions without being consumed.

Note that:

All enzymes are catalysts, but not all catalysts are enzymes.

  • Enzymes are a subset of catalysts that specifically facilitate biochemical reactions in living organisms. They are typically protein molecules, although there are RNA-based enzymes known as ribozymes.
  • Catalysts, in a broader sense, are substances that increase the rate of a reaction without undergoing permanent chemical change themselves. They can be inorganic, organic, or biological (like enzymes).

In other words, while every enzyme acts as a catalyst (speeding up chemical reactions without being consumed), there are many catalysts in the chemical world that are not enzymes.

Enzymes vs. Catalysts

Enzymes Catalysts
Enzymes are biological molecules, typically proteins. Catalysts can be inorganic, organic, or biological.
They are found in living organisms. They are found in nature or synthesized in laboratories.
Enzymes work under mild, biological conditions such as body temperature and pH. Catalysts can function under a wide range of conditions, including extreme temperatures and pH.
They are highly specific, often acting on one type of substrate. They are generally less specific and can facilitate various reactions.
Enzymes can be regulated by inhibitors, activators, etc. Catalysts are not usually regulated in the same dynamic way.
They are generally large molecules. They can range from small molecules to large complexes.
Enzymes can have an extremely high turnover rate, processing thousands of molecules per second in some cases. Catalysts' turnover rates vary widely; some are very fast, while others might be slower.
They can be denatured or degraded, losing activity. They are typically more stable and not prone to denaturation.
Amylase: A digestive enzyme found in saliva that helps break down starches into sugars. Platinum: Used in catalytic converters in cars to speed up the breakdown of exhaust gases and reduce pollution.

What are Enzymes?

Enzymes are specialized protein molecules that act as biological catalysts, accelerating chemical reactions in living organisms without being consumed in the process. They are essential for life, driving crucial biochemical reactions that enable metabolism, DNA replication, digestion, and many other cellular processes.


Enzymes have a complex three-dimensional structure, primarily made up of amino acid chains. Their active sites, the regions where substrate molecules bind and undergo a chemical reaction, are very specific. This specificity arises because of the unique shape and amino acid composition of the active site, often described by the “lock and key” or “induced fit” models.


Amylase: Found in saliva and pancreatic juice, it breaks down large starch molecules into simpler sugars.

Lipase: Produced in the pancreas and released into the small intestine, it helps digest fats.

DNA polymerase: An enzyme that assists in DNA replication, ensuring the accurate copying of genetic information.

Catalase: Present in the cells of most organisms, it rapidly decomposes hydrogen peroxide into water and oxygen.

Ribonuclease: It cleaves RNA molecules, playing a vital role in RNA processing and degradation.


The concept of enzymes dates back to the late 19th century. In 1897, Eduard Buchner discovered that yeast extracts could ferment sugar to alcohol, suggesting that cell-free fermentations were possible and that enzymes could function outside of a living cell. This discovery led to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1907.


Enzymes function by reducing the activation energy required for a reaction to proceed. They achieve this by binding substrates at their active sites, orienting them in a manner that makes the reaction more likely, and sometimes even stressing substrate bonds, making them easier to break.

What are Catalysts?

Catalysts are substances that speed up the rate of chemical reactions without being consumed or altered permanently. They are essential in various industries and natural processes, allowing many reactions to occur under milder conditions than would be required in their absence.

Catalysts can be broadly categorized into two types: homogenous (those in the same phase as the reactants) and heterogeneous (those in a different phase than the reactants). They can be made of a wide range of materials, including metals, compounds, and even complex organic molecules.


  • Platinum and Palladium: Used in car exhaust systems’ catalytic converters to transform harmful gases like carbon monoxide into less harmful substances.
  • Iron: Acts as a catalyst in the Haber process, which produces ammonia from nitrogen and hydrogen – a critical reaction for fertilizer production.
  • Zeolites: Porous materials that are widely used in the petroleum industry to crack large hydrocarbon molecules into gasoline.
  • Acid Catalysts: Such as sulfuric acid, which accelerates esterification, the reaction between alcohols and carboxylic acids.
  • Transition Metal Complexes: Used in various organic syntheses, including the polymerization of alkenes.


The exact mechanism varies depending on the catalyst and the reaction. Generally, catalysts function by providing an alternative reaction pathway or intermediate, lowering the activation energy required for the reaction. This makes the reaction proceed faster than it would without the catalyst. In some cases, catalysts can also function by orienting reactants in a particular way or providing a surface for the reaction to occur.

By enhancing reaction rates and allowing reactions to occur under milder conditions, catalysts play a crucial role in energy conservation, resource optimization, and reducing harmful by-products in various industries.

Key Differences Between Enzymes and Catalysts

Key differences between enzymes and catalysts

Similarities Between Enzymes and Catalysts

  1. Both enzymes and catalysts speed up the rate of chemical reactions without being consumed in the process.
  2. While they can accelerate the attainment of equilibrium, neither enzymes nor catalysts change the equilibrium position of a reaction.
  3. Both can be used repeatedly for their respective reactions, as they are not used up or fundamentally changed by the reaction.
  4. Enzymes and catalysts work by lowering the activation energy of a reaction, making it easier for the reaction to occur.
  5. In both enzymatic and catalyzed reactions, there is often a temporary formation of an intermediate complex (like an enzyme-substrate complex) which eventually breaks down to give the product and regenerate the enzyme or catalyst.
  6. The activity of both enzymes and catalysts can be influenced by external factors such as temperature, pressure, and pH. For example, enzymes can be denatured or become inactive at high temperatures or extreme pH values, and inorganic catalysts can lose effectiveness under certain conditions as well.