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Biochemistry – A Very Short Introduction



My new book – Biochemistry – A Very Short Introduction is available for pre-order now!

A here’s a sneak preview…

From the simplest bacteria to humans, all living things are composed of cells of one type or another. Amazingly, no matter where on the evolutionary tree they perch, those organisms all have fundamentally the same chemistry. This chemistry must provide mechanisms that allow cells to interact with the external world, a means to power the cell, machinery to carry out all the varied processes, a structure within which everything runs, and of course some sort of governance. Cells, in many ways, are like communities, but controlled and governed through a web of interlocking chemical reactions. Biochemistry is the study of those reactions, the molecules that are created, manipulated, and destroyed as a result of them, and the massive macromolecules (such as DNA, cytoskeletons, proteins and carbohydrates) that form the chemical machinery and structures on which these biochemical reactions take place.

Or, put more succinctly by the great physicist Erwin Schrödinger,

In biology .. a single group of atoms .. produces orderly events marvellously tuned in with each other and the environment according to the most subtle laws.’

Biochemistry is then the endeavour to understand those subtle laws governing those finely tuned orderly events, it is the study of biological molecules and their interactions, and so aims to reveal the molecular basis of life.

Of course, life in all its glory is so much more than just single cells. Cells come together to form multi-cellular organisms which then require a means for individual cells to communicate and ‘trade’ with one another. The organisms, in turn, interact to form the complex webs that are our eco-systems. And all of those interactions are modulated and facilitated through biochemical means. For example, consider the rhodopsin molecules that respond to photons of light, and so act as the first stage of a predator spotting its next meal. Or the olfactory proteins that bind a few minuscule molecules, which trigger a cascade of biochemical reactions that result in prey being alerted to the predator’s presence. Or the antibodies that act as the first guards, recognising the foreign molecules of an invading parasite and triggering the army that is the immune response. All of these processes fall within the realm of biochemistry.

It didn’t take long for an understanding of the chemistry of life to turn into a desire to manipulate it. Drugs and therapies all aim to modify biochemical processes for good or ill: Penicillin, derived from a mould, stops bacteria making their cell walls. Aspirin, with its origins in willow bark, inhibits enzymes involved in inflammatory responses. A few nanograms of botulinum toxin (botox), can kill by preventing the release of neurotransmitters from the ends of nerves and so leads to paralysis and death. Alternatively, the same botulinum toxin administered in tiny quantities results in a wrinkle free forehead. This is all biochemistry.

Detailed description of these topics could easily have made it into this book, and some readers may feel I was remiss in neglecting them and other topics as fundamental as vitamins, hormones, chromosomes, and numerous biochemical techniques. But this is after all a very short introduction, and so I had to draw the line somewhere. As a result, for much of the book I’ve focussed on some of the chemistry that occurs within cells. For therein lie the fundamental chemical processes that all life shares.

Finally, the boundaries of biochemistry are ill defined; it overlaps with genetics, molecular biology, cell biology, biophysics and biotechnology. And so I finish with a pair of chapters which explore how fundamental discoveries in biochemistry are influencing these fields and society at large.

By April 19, 2021 0 comments Uncategorized