Biochemistry (Encyclopedia of Science)
Biochemistry is the science dealing with the chemical nature of the bodily processes that occur in all living things. It is the study of how plants, animals, and microbes function at the level of molecules.
Biochemists study the structure and properties of chemical compounds in the cells of living organisms and their role in regulating the chemical processes (collectively called metabolism) that are necessary to life. These chemical processes include transforming simple substances from food into more complex compounds for use by the body, or breaking down complex compounds in food to produce energy. For example, amino acids obtained from food combine to form protein molecules, which are used for cell growth and tissue repair. One very important type of protein are enzymes, which cause chemical reactions in the body to proceed at a faster rate.
Complex compounds in food, such as proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, are broken down into smaller molecules in the body to produce energy. Energy that is not needed immediately is stored for later use.
(The entire section is 382 words.)
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Biochemistry (World of Microbiology and Immunology)
Biochemistry seeks to describe the structure, organization, and functions of living matter in molecular terms. Essentially two factors have contributed to the excitement in the field today and have enhanced the impact of research and advances in biochemistry on other life sciences. First, it is now generally accepted that the physical elements of living matter obey the same fundamental laws that govern all matter, both living and non-living. Therefore the full potential of modern chemical and physical theory can be brought in to solve certain biological problems. Secondly, incredibly powerful new research techniques, notably those developing from the fields of biophysics and molecular biology, are permitting scientists to ask questions about the basic process of life that could not have been imagined even a few years ago.
Biochemistry now lies at the heart of a revolution in the biological sciences and it is nowhere better illustrated than in the remarkable number of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry or Medicine and Physiology that have been won by biochemists in recent years. A typical example is the award of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, to Gertrude Elion and George Hitchings of the United States and Sir James Black of Great Britain for their leadership in inventing new drugs. Elion and Hitchings developed chemical analogs of nucleic acids and vitamins which are now being used to treat leukemia, bacterial infections, malaria, gout, herpes virus infections and AIDS. Black developed beta-blockers that are now used to reduce the risk of heart attack and to treat diseases such as asthma. These drugs were designed and not discovered through random organic synthesis. Developments in knowledge within certain key areas of biochemistry, such as protein structure and function, nucleic acid synthesis, enzyme mechanisms, receptors and metabolic control, vitamins, and coenzymes all contributed to enable such progress to be made.
Two more recent Nobel Prizes give further evidence for the breadth of the impact of biochemistry. In 1997, the Chemistry Prize was shared by three scientists: the American Paul Boyer and the British J. Walker for their discovery of the "rotary engine" that generates the energy-carrying compound ATP, and the Danish J. Skou, for his studies of the "pump" that drives sodium and potassium across membranes. In the same year, the Prize in Medicine and Physiology went to Stanley Prusiner, for his studies on the prion, the agent thought to be responsible for "mad cow disease" and several similar human conditions.
Biochemistry draws on its major themes from many disciplines. For example from organic chemistry, which describes the properties of biomolecules; from biophysics, which applies the techniques of physics to study the structures of biomolecules; from medical research, which increasingly seeks to understand disease states in molecular terms and also from nutrition, microbiology, physiology, cell biology and genetics. Biochemistry draws strength from all of these disciplines but is also a distinct discipline, with its own identity. It is distinctive in its emphasis on the structures and relations of biomolecules, particularly enzymes and biological catalysis, also on the elucidation of metabolic pathways and their control and on the principle that life processes can, at least on the physical level, be understood through the laws of chemistry. It has its origins as a distinct field of study in the early nineteenth century, with the pioneering work of Freidrich Wöhler. Prior to Wöhler's time it was believed that the substance of living matter was somehow quantitatively different from that of nonliving matter and did not behave according to the known laws of physics and chemistry. In 1828 Wöhler showed that urea, a substance of biological origin excreted by humans and many animals as a product of nitrogen metabolism, could be synthesized in the laboratory from the inorganic compound ammonium cyanate. As Wöhler phrased it in a letter to a colleague, "I must tell you that I can prepare urea without requiring a kidney or an animal, either man or dog." This was a shocking statement at the time, for it breached the presumed barrier between the living and the nonliving. Later, in 1897, two German brothers, Eduard and Hans Buchner, found that extracts from broken and thoroughly dead cells from yeast, could nevertheless carry out the entire process of fermentation of sugar into ethanol. This discovery opened the door to analysis of biochemical reactions and processes in vitro (Latin "in glass"), meaning in the test tube rather than in vivo, in living matter. In succeeding decades many other metabolic reactions and reaction pathways were reproduced in vitro, allowing identification of reactants and products and of enzymes, or biological catalysts, that promoted each biochemical reaction.
Until 1926, the structures of enzymes (or "ferments") were thought to be far too complex to be described in chemical terms. But in 1926, J.B. Sumner showed that the protein urease, an enzyme from jack beans, could be crystallized like other organic compounds. Although proteins have large and complex structures, they are also organic compounds and their physical structures can be determined by chemical methods.
Today, the study of biochemistry can be broadly divided into three principal areas: (1) the structural chemistry of the components of living matter and the relationships of biological function to chemical structure; (2) metabolism, the totality of chemical reactions that occur in living matter; and (3) the chemistry of processes and substances that store and transmit biological information. The third area is also the province of molecular genetics, a field that seeks to understand heredity and the expression of genetic information in molecular terms.
Biochemistry is having a profound influence in the field of medicine. The molecular mechanisms of many diseases, such as sickle cell anemia and numerous errors of metabolism, have been elucidated. Assays of enzyme activity are today indispensable in clinical diagnosis. To cite just one example, liver disease is now routinely diagnosed and monitored by measurements of blood levels of enzymes called transaminases and of a hemoglobin breakdown product called bilirubin. DNA probes are coming into play in diagnosis of genetic disorders, infectious diseases and cancers. Genetically engineered strains of bacteria containing recombinant DNA are producing valuable proteins such as insulin and growth hormone. Furthermore, biochemistry is a basis for the rational design of new drugs. Also the rapid development of powerful biochemical concepts and techniques in recent years has enabled investigators to tackle some of the most challenging and fundamental problems in medicine and physiology. For example in embryology, the mechanisms by which the fertilized embryo gives rise to cells as different as muscle, brain and liver are being intensively investigated. Also, in anatomy, the question of how cells find each other in order to form a complex organ, such as the liver or brain, are being tackled in biochemical terms. The impact of biochemistry is being felt in many areas of human life through this kind of research, and the discoveries are fuelling the growth of the life sciences as a whole.
See also Antibody-antigen, biochemical and molecular reactions; Biochemical analysis techniques; Biogeochemical cycles; Bioremediation; Biotechnology; Immunochemistry; Immunological analysis techniques; Miller-Urey experiment; Nitrogen cycle in microorganisms; Photosynthesis