Few branches of science and chemistry demonstrate how practical and vital the scientific method is quite like biochemistry. Back in June, we introduced the five main branches of chemistry. In this we’ll explore several biochemistry topics, including its individual components and their applications in advancing our knowledge and building new types of careers for the curious-minded. From better understanding the animal and plant kingdoms, to developing new medicines, foods and other products, biochemistry concerns itself with unraveling some of the smallest — and yet most consequential — mysteries of our physical universe: the workings of living organisms.
Biochemistry Topics You Need to Know
Chemistry itself is a spectacularly broad field. Biochemistry is one of the five main branches of chemistry, but it’s a rich and diverse field of study in its own right. Anyone who’s considering a future in biochemistry will be pleased to learn just how many individual disciplines there are to sink your teeth into. There are fruitful discoveries being made here all the time, and you can be sure there are many, many more to come.
Here are some of the biochemistry disciplines that have risen to prominence:
- Animal biochemistry
- Plant biochemistry
- Molecular biology
- Cell biology
It’s not uncommon to hear the terms “biochemistry” and “molecular biology” used interchangeably, and with some good reason. When we drill down to the level of observational detail required by this field, we end up looking not merely at whole animals, tissues and organs, but at the biomolecules employed by nature to “build” them and make them function. These include:
- Proteins and amino acids
- Carbohydrates and saccharides
- Nucleic acids and ribonucleic acids
- Lipids and fats
The ones in bold are considered the “four major types” of biomolecules. Biomolecules are the very building blocks of life, and biochemistry is the study of how they function together and separately.
How Does Biochemistry Help Us Understand the World?
Quite simply, biomolecules give rise to biochemical processes, which give rise to life itself. So what kinds of biochemical processes are we talking about?
Think about areas of inquiry such as:
- The division of cells and the growth processes of organisms
- The process of morphogenesis (how the shapes of living things are determined)
- The normal and abnormal growth of organisms
- How organisms convert energy into the materials required by cells
- How animals reproduce, including how they pass on positive traits as well as defects to their young
- The ability for organisms and species to adapt to their environment as it changes
- The way individual organisms achieve homeostasis with their immediate surroundings (camouflage, sweating, respiration, etc.)
- How DNA and RNA function and how a fuller understanding of human, plant and animal genomes can lead to improvements in our collective health and longevity
It’s fair to say humanity’s found itself at a pivotal moment in its collective development. Weathering national, geopolitical and environmental conflicts depends a great deal on how well we know the world and even ourselves. Science is the most powerful engine of discovery we’ve ever developed — and biochemistry is taking our sciences to brand-new areas and helping us get to the bottom of some familiar ones, too.
What Will Scientists Discover Next?
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What Are the Applications of Biochemistry?
The discoveries made by biochemists have applications in a huge range of disciplines, career paths and everyday products and services. As we mentioned earlier, there are several biochemistry topics to study because the subject is applicable to several ares.
Today, we apply biochemistry to myriad tasks, including the following:
- Designing new medications and treatments and improving the effectiveness of existing ones.
- Uncovering the causes of diseases and how to cure and prevent them. When scientists declare they have conquered (or nearly conquered, thanks to willful ignorance and/or warfare) diseases that once killed millions, it’s thanks to biochemistry.
- Exploring new formulations for cosmetic products, including those designed to provide restorative or medicinal benefits to systems, organs and tissues in the body, such as the skin, nails and hair.
- Understanding nutrition and what the human body requires to survive and thrive: in other words, which kinds of “routine maintenance,” foods, and food additives the body requires to reach and stay at peak performance.
- Improving agricultural yield and the health value of farmed foods, and researching better ways to store crops and other foods. Biochemists are responsible for developing soil additives, pesticides and fertilizers — and, ideally, for finding out where less-invasive and more natural techniques can be applied.
It may not surprise you to learn this, but biochemistry has implications for some of the most urgent questions of our time — including how (and whether there’s still time) to mitigate humanity’s disastrous impact on the natural world, its manifold lifeforms, and planet earth’s normal climatic cycles.
We’ve already briefly explored one such avenue: improving our agricultural sciences is absolutely imperative if we’re to feed the human incoming generations without completely destroying the earth’s available topsoil and farmable land. Some estimates say we only have decades of farming left if we don’t take practical steps to improve the efficiency of our farming systems and challenge some of our familiar assumptions and business models.
Finding ways to harness alternative energy sources, including deploying biomass systems and even incorporating elements of photosynthesis, is also within the purview of biochemists.
Careers Within Biochemistry and the Future of the Discipline
It’s not all doom and gloom, naturally. Other career paths you might consider, if you’ve got an interest in biochemistry, include:
- Life sciences researchers
- Analytical chemists
- Biomedical scientists
- Medicinal chemists
- Forensic scientists
- Physician associates
- Environmental scientists, analysts and engineers
- Health and safety inspectors
Naturally, you’ll have to bring a mixture of soft skills and hard skills to any of these disciplines. The former include a keen eye for details, problem-solving skills and critical thinking. The latter include mathematics skills, information technology skills, report writing skills, time management, team-mindedness and more.
And even if you don’t want to pursue any of these careers, you now have a better understanding of what biochemistry is and why it’s important. We will only see more biochemistry topics, skills and careers added to these lists over time as our study of living things continues to unfold.
So the next time somebody close to you tries to argue that something like global climate change, and humanity’s role in it, is “just a theory,” remind them that gravity and general relativity are “just theories” too — but that all of our collective observations have yet to disprove them. “Germ theory” is “just a theory” too. There was a time when most living persons believed piles of wheat in barns spawned new mice and diseases were the doings of demons. We know better on both accounts today. We still hang onto the theory that pathogens cause disease because nothing we’ve seen yet says otherwise.
The branches of chemistry are asymptotic pursuits of the truth. They don’t always provide easy answers, but they definitely give us critical missing puzzle pieces. That’s why it’s important to study biochemistry topics. They’re also an inoculation against fear and superstition. As we’ve seen here, biochemistry is an eminently practical field to find yourself in, and probably one of the most exciting sciences in the world today.