By David Timson
“So what do you teach at Queen’s?” “Biochemistry.” There follows an awkward silence. The questioner usually then says something like “Oh” or “That must be hard” before walking away. Occasionally you get nicer (if wildly inaccurate) responses: an estate agent told me that I “must be the smartest person” she had ever met, which may say more about the social lives of estate agents than the subject area. A strong contender for the worst response was the taxi driver who spent 15 minutes describing his irritable bowel.
Sometimes biochemistry doesn’t get the best press coverage. A guy who decided to make bombs in his garage was widely described in newspapers as a biochemist (if I recall correctly, he was actually a chemical engineer). It’s not unknown for biochemists who do more positive things (like help develop new cancer treatments) to be described as “doctors” or “boffins” in the media.
The wisdom that is Wikipedia tells us that biochemistry is “the study of chemical processes within and relating to living organisms.” Another common definition is “the chemistry of life”. At first sight these seem modest, even bland. Yet to understand the chemistry underlying living processes is a considerable challenge. First you have to accept that (scientifically) there is nothing special or magical about life. (That’s not to say that living things don’t have “value” or aren’t worthy of protection.) Living systems obey the same rules of chemistry and physics as everything else, but they do tend to be a lot more complex. So understanding how they work might be a bit more complicated than, say, a simple reaction between two small molecules (although my chemistry colleagues would be quick to point out that even that isn’t so straightforward and remains imperfectly understood at the most fundamental levels). So, to really understand biochemistry you first need to know some chemistry. It would be hard to figure out how proteins work without knowing about functional group organic chemistry, non-covalent bonding and the physical chemistry of kinetics and equilibria.
If we leave bomb making to the engineers and irritable bowels to the clinicians, there’s still some things biochemistry is not. It’s not “all about techniques”. Yes, a lot of biologists now employ some biochemical methods in their research. (For the record, biochemists also borrow methodologies too – especially from chemistry, microbiology and physiology.) We’re very happy for everyone to use our techniques, but we’d like you to know that we don’t just spend our lives inventing new ones. Notwithstanding certain estate agents, biochemistry isn’t really that hard either – or at least no harder or easier than any other academic discipline. The chemistry and the quantitative aspects might intimidate some students, but the good news is that most organisms are much the same at the biochemical level. The bacteria in your bowel (irritable or otherwise) are metabolising your last meal using much the same pathways as your own cells. It’s also true that a remarkable number of biochemical phenomena can be explained by “conformational changes” in proteins and other biomolecules. (The challenge is often to define exactly what those changes are.) While biochemistry is a critical part of medicine, it is not just an adjunct to biomedical sciences. Biochemists can, and do, study all different types of organisms and not everything we do is aimed at new diagnostic tests.
If you look down a list of Nobel Prize winners for the last 50-60 years, you will see a lot of biochemists. (To be fair, that might be partly because the Chemistry and Medicine & Physiology prizes cover large and overlapping swathes of the subject area.) Stryer’s “Biochemistry” used to be the top-selling academic textbook not only reflecting the popularity of the subject but also the need for biologists, biomedical scientists and medical students to know some biochemistry to succeed. Those diagnostic tests and new methodologies (yes, some biochemists do work on these) will lead to impact in the world outside the lab (and not just in the narrow, REF sense of the word) – and so will the new drugs, biocatalysts, GM crops, biosensors etc etc. The current literature in biochemistry is probably as wide and extensive as the whole of chemistry or physics. There’s a case to be made that biochemistry is a subject area in its own right: it certainly isn’t just a subset of chemistry or biology. That said, it would be a mistake for biochemists to believe that their subject is inherently better or more important than others. For example, while there will be a biochemical explanation for complex animal behaviours, there’s a risk your head might explode if you attempted to develop a complete molecular picture of such things.
So next time you meet a biochemist don’t just walk on. Stay and chat. What s/he does will probably be interesting and since everyone else will have walked on there’s a good chance s/he will be happy to explain. As that explanation unfolds you’ll probably learn something exciting. It might be about how cells communicate, the fundamental details of what goes wrong in a particular disease, how a microbe lives under extreme conditions or what molecular mechanisms plants use to resist droughts and other stresses. Whatever it is, you’re unlikely to be bored.