Yes, biochemistry and molecular biology at times can be challenging, but it is not all bad news! There are a few things to note and a few approaches you can follow that should make things easier than they initially appear or pay dividends in the long run.
All extant life is related. This is a very good thing!
All extant life (living organisms which exist now on Earth) has a common ancestor. The evidence for this is presented in Chapter 3. This means that even with all of the amazing diversity of life around us, because all living things are related, they work in fundamentally the same way at the molecular level. For example, all life uses DNA to store genetic information and codes it essentially in the same way, and all life uses the same or similar basic molecular building blocks and organises them in the same way. This means that once you understand a few basic principles, you will be able to apply this knowledge to all living things. Imagine how difficult it would be if this were not the case, and we had to learn everything from scratch when we moved on to a new organism!
Finding the patterns
Biology (and in fact all science) is concerned with discovering relationships between variables. That is, it is about discovering trends and patterns. The most useful discoveries in biology are those that are explanations for general phenomena. Similarly, when you are learning a discipline, it is most useful to learn the principles that have the broadest applicability.
When you first learn biology at the molecular level it might seem that there is a bewildering amount of information to learn. There is a lot! But you will also realise that many processes work in a similar way or even use the same or very similar components.
In his essay ‘Evolution and Tinkering’, published in Science in 1977, the French biologist and Nobel laureate, François Jacob described evolution as a ‘dogged tinkerer’. What he meant by this is that evolution should not be compared to engineering, where a new function is designed and created from scratch. Rather, the process is similar, in Jacob’s words, to a ‘tinkerer [who] picks up an object which happens to be in his stock and gives it an unexpected function. Out of an old car wheel, he will make a fan; from a broken table, a parasol.’
We often mention adaption when discussing evolution. This is where changes to a population or species occur due to selective pressure of the environment (see Growth, reproduction and evolution in Chapter 3). However, there is another important process called exaptation. This is where a trait can shift in function during evolution. That is, like how the tinkerer works, the trait is given an unexpected new function.
This might be difficult to understand at this stage but will become clearer after you read chapters 3 and 4. At the moment just understand that because evolution will reuse and repurpose biological components for new functions, you will see that similar mechanisms occur in different cellular processes. The same molecule or mechanism will be seen in different pathways, and different complex signalling or biosynthetic pathways will contain the same modular components.
For example, the molecule adenosine is a component of DNA, RNA, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), coenzyme A, nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), flavin adenine dinucleotide (FAD) and cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). These participate in many different cellular processes but once you first learn about adenosine you will much more easily see how it fits into all these different places.
Another example is G-protein coupled receptors, a large superfamily of cell surface receptors that have incredibly diverse functions (photoreception, taste, pain and smell; they also mediate cell recognition, metabolism and growth) despite having a very similar structure and common mechanism of action. All G-protein coupled receptors share two properties – they have seven transmembrane domains, and they interact with specialised proteins (called G proteins) to influence intracellular pathways after binding extracellular signals (see Figure 2.4).
Getting to grips with the language
Part of the challenge you will face initially with biochemistry is learning new terms. The American author and educator Neil Postman said:
Biology is not plants and animals. It is language about plants and animals …
This quote highlights the importance of language when learning about biology. It is not just about learning new words but also how to use words you already know in a biological or scientific context. Without understanding language and naming conventions to a level where you use them in your speech and writing, your learning will be limited. This is not trivial – in science classes the number of new terms can be comparable to foreign language classes!
In addition, there are two ways in which language is confusing in biochemistry:
- Words are often borrowed from everyday English and repurposed. This can make it difficult as you will need to re-learn a word you know but in its scientific context.
For example, when we speak about tissues in everyday language, the brand Kleenex may come to mind. However, in cell biology, tissues refer to a level of organisation in multicellular organisms consisting of a group of either functionally or structurally similar cells plus their surrounding intercellular material.
Similarly, words like transcription or translation have a meaning in everyday writtend and spoken language. However, in molecular biology they specifically refer to the transfer of genetic information in living organisms.
With this kind of terminology, the key is to ensure that you understand the processes they are associated with. Understanding them in context is the key to not confusing their counterpart meaning in everyday English.
- Many words are long and complex and have origins from other languages, principally Greek and Latin. These, just because of their unfamiliarity and length, will be difficult to read and intimidating to say aloud.
Becoming fluent in the language of biology
When learning anything complex it is a good idea to break it down into smaller parts to make it more accessible.
Scientific words often have three parts – a prefix, a root and a suffix, as shown in the following table.
|Appears at the beginning of a word. Many are used frequently, so you will eventually learn their meaning.||The root of a word often has a standalone meaning. These often have a Greek or Latin origin.||Appears at the end of a word to provide additional meaning.|
|hypo – below|
hyper – above
cyclo – ring
poly – many
endo – within
exo – outside of
|iso – equal|
allo – other
chloro – green
cyte – cell
|-phillic – love, affection|
-phobic – hate, fear
-lysis – breakdown
-some – body
-oma – abnormal, cancer
You will be surprised how often the same prefix, root or suffix will appear in different words. Once you learn a few, things will start to get easier. For example, the Greek word therm means ‘heat’. You will find this word in a large family of scientific terms, including exothermic, thermogenesis, thermoregulation, isothermal, ectotherm, thermodynamics, hypothermia and many others.
Knowing the word origin (etymology) of a term can also help to identify its likely meaning and make it easier to understand in biochemistry.
For example, the word eukaryote is a noun describing a cell containing a nucleus. It is derived from the prefix eu– (from Greek, meaning good, well or true), the root kary (from the Greek word karyon, which means kernel or nut but now indicates the cell nucleus) and the suffix –ote (a singular form of the Greek-derived word osis, which means process or state).
There are many useful websites that can help you with understanding the etymology of words.
- Online Etymology Dictionary
- The Free Dictionary also contains a thesaurus, medical dictionary and many other features. You can listen to a pronunciation of almost all words in the dictionary.
When learning new words, writing them in a sentence of your own construction can help integrate them into your vocabulary faster. Also say them aloud. Try not to be intimidated by their length – most of the time they will be phonetic (sound the way they are spelled). So just break them down into their component parts and at first say them slowly until you get used to pronouncing them! When you can confidently say them in your head, reading will be much easier, and your learning will rapidly accelerate.
The reason for learning anything in the first place is to be able to apply that knowledge to novel situations. This means that it is always much more important to learn concepts rather than isolated facts. Biochemistry and molecular biology as disciplines are no different. This does not mean that facts are unimportant! It is just that understanding ideas and concepts will help you learn facts faster. Learn to understand rather than just simply memorise.
An excellent example of the importance of concepts versus facts is the development of the periodic table of the elements. The Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev set out to order the known chemical elements in the 1860s (at the time only 63 elements were known). He noticed that there was a correlation between atomic weight and the chemical properties of elements. This led to ordering elements by increasing atomic weight but also into horizontal rows called periods, where each period number indicates the number of electron orbitals for the elements in that row. As elements were discovered they were added logically to the gaps in the table.
For students of chemistry (and biochemistry!) where knowledge of the elements is important, it is far better to understand the main concepts underlying the periodic table than to memorise the chemical properties of individual elements.
Conceptual learning is important but there is a hierarchy of concepts too. Some are more important than others in the sense that by learning them they will allow you to connect many different concepts. We call these threshold concepts, and mastering them is the purpose of this e-book.
Mastering the threshold concepts
A threshold concept refers to one of the core concepts in a subject whose understanding is key to transforming the way you understand the subject as a whole. To understand what we mean by a threshold concept, consider this example from the unrelated discipline of history.
When you begin learning history you may focus on names and dates and accept an initial historical account you read to be accurate. However, as you study in more depth, you begin to understand that historical accounts can be biased, and there can in fact be different competing historical accounts. Often there is no clear definition of why something happened or even a definitive account of what actually happened! The threshold concept in this case is that there is an interpretive aspect to history. This is transformative as once you understand it, you will never read history in the same way again.
So, threshold concepts are transformative (create a significant shift in your understanding), probably irreversible (once learnt are difficult to unlearn), integrative (allow you to make links between different topics) and potentially troublesome (difficult to initially grasp and often counterintuitive).
The focus of this resource is to help you understand the key threshold concepts in biochemistry and molecular biology. These have been identified by research funded by the American National Science Foundation. Key threshold concepts critical for biochemistry were identified in five major areas:
- The central importance of the theory of evolution to all biological sciences
- Matter and energy transformation
- Homeostasis, control and regulation
- Biological information
- Macromolecular structure and function
Applying active learning
Despite the importance of concepts some things just need to be committed to memory. However, memorisation is far more effective if it is done by active learning rather than passive learning. If you simply read text or watch lectures, the information will wash over you. However, if you write things down (preferably by hand), create diagrams and flowcharts and constantly check your knowledge by answering questions, you will be far more likely to successfully commit important information to memory. Give yourself plenty of time to study, and leave enough time between knowledge checks to ensure you are not just testing your short-term memory.
- Postman, N. (1980). Language Education in a Knowledge Context: A Review of General Semantics, 37(1), 25–37. ↵
- Loertscher, J., Green, D., Lewis, J., Lin, S., & Minderhout, V. (2014). Identification of threshold concepts for biochemistry. CBE Life Sciences Education, 13(3), 516–528. ↵
What is the importance of molecular biology in biochemistry? ›
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Molecular Biology is the study of cells: their structure, function, growth, and chemical processes. Mol. Bio. focuses on the subcellular level, and is commonly used to study regulation and coordination of DNA, RNA, and proteins.What is the importance of studying the molecular level of organisms? ›
Collecting this information not only provides basic knowledge into how biology works, but helps inform the efforts of other scientists who seek to manipulate that biology. Those scientists include drug designers and genetic engineers.What is the most important technique in molecular biology? ›
Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)What is the most important molecule in biochemistry? ›
DNA is the acronym for deoxyribonucleic acid. While water and oxygen are small, DNA is a large molecule or macromolecule. DNA carries the genetic information or blueprints to make new cells or even a new you if you were cloned. While you can't live without making new cells, DNA is important for another reason.What is the relationship between biochemistry and molecular biology and genetics? ›
It has three main branches which are biochemistry which studies the molecular components of cells, genetics which studies information transfer within cells and microbiology which studies cells and single celled organisms.What are the commonly used techniques in biochemistry and molecular biology? ›
The most common procedures are DNA plasmid preparation, cDNA amplification by polymerase chain reaction (PCR), DNA construct design and synthesis, and site-directed mutagenesis.Is molecular biology part of biochemistry? ›
While molecular biology focuses on a narrower slice of biology and genetics, biochemistry combines knowledge from biology and chemistry.What is the difference between biochemistry and molecular biology? ›
While biochemistry focuses on the structure and function of compounds like DNA, enzymes and proteins, molecular biology focuses on how molecules convert information into chemical reactions.
What do you need to study for molecular biology? ›
The first step to becoming a molecular biologist is to earn a bachelor's degree in a scientific subject, preferably biology or molecular biology. Earning a bachelor's degree can give you skills to work in a lab setting and knowledge you can apply to a career in molecular biology.What are the concepts of molecular biology? ›
Molecular biology chiefly concerns itself with understanding the interactions between the various systems of a cell, including the interactions between DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), RNA (Ribonucleic acid) and protein biosynthesis as well as learning how these interactions are regulated.How important is the study of cell and molecular biology? ›
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Molecular analysis helps to identify the biofilm composition to genus level and to determine shifts in the community due to environmental changes.How can I be good at molecular biology? ›
- Take classes. Take classes in molecular biology or a related field. ...
- Gain experience. ...
- Earn a degree. ...
- Attend workshops or conventions. ...
- Join a professional organization. ...
- Get a certificate. ...
- ELISA. ...
- Cell and tissue culture.
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The discovery in 1953 of the double helix, the twisted-ladder structure of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), by James Watson and Francis Crick marked a milestone in the history of science and gave rise to modern molecular biology, which is largely concerned with understanding how genes control the chemical processes within ...What are the 4 most important molecules to biology? ›
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The four major types of biomolecules are carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids, and proteins.
What are the four major biologically important molecules? ›
11.1 Introduction: The Four Major Macromolecules
These are the carbohydrates, lipids (or fats), proteins, and nucleic acids. All of the major macromolecule classes are similar, in that, they are large polymers that are assembled from small repeating monomer subunits.
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- Cell culture.
- Western blot.
- Gel electrophoresis.
- Molecular Cloning.
- Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR)
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The field of molecular biology is focused especially on nucleic acids (e.g., DNA and RNA) and proteins—macromolecules that are essential to life processes—and how these molecules interact and behave within cells.Which is more difficult biology or biochemistry? ›
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#5: Cell and Molecular Biology
We are now entering the top five hardest majors! Cell and molecular biology majors devote about 18 hours and 40 minutes a week to class preparation.
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There are more job opportunities available to those pursuing a bachelor's degree in molecular biology, which can be completed in four years. Tack on one more year and receive specialized laboratory training in areas like genetic engineering or DNA sequencing.
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Unpacked five most important core principles in physiology, including cell membranes, homeostasis, cell-to-cell communications, interdependence, and flow-down gradients.What are the main basic concepts of biology? ›
Basic Principles of Biology. The foundation of biology as it exists today is based on five basic principles. They are the cell theory, gene theory, evolution, homeostasis, and laws of thermodynamics.What is a molecular level example? ›
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Answer and Explanation: When a chemical reaction is occurring, the bonds between the atoms of the reacting molecules break. Atoms are rearranged and form new bonds to create new substances. A chemical reaction is one that occurs at the molecular level and produces an entirely new product.What is function at the molecular level? ›
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By comparing DNA of different organisms it's possible to document genetic change over time. Counting the number of nucleotide differences between species, in a segment of DNA, provides information on how long ago these species diverged from a common ancestor.What is the advantage of molecular method? ›
Specificity: Molecular methods minimize false positive test results by targeting the specific molecule of interest. Turn Around Time: In comparison with standard traditional culture methods, molecular methodologies usually offer better turn around times from receipt to result reporting.What is the advantage of molecular approach? ›
Molecular methods allow the detection of pathogen nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) and, therefore, the detection of contamination in food is carried out with high selectivity and rapidity.Is molecular biology important in the field of medical laboratory science? ›
The application of engineering techniques to the technological revolution in molecular biology has greatly improved the diagnostic capabilities of modern clinical microbiology laboratories.
Has become an important tool in biochemistry molecular biology and medicine? ›
What has become an important tool in biochemistry, molecular biology, and medicine? Explanation: MCA or monoclonal antibodies are a very important tool in the field of biochemistry, molecular biology, and medicine.What is the impact of molecular biology? ›
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This program is good preparation for medical, dental and graduate school and careers in biotechnology; pharmaceutical development and sales, food and drug research; and environmental research and protection. Learn more about what you can do with a major in biochemistry and molecular biology.What are 3 applications of molecular biology in the field of medical technology? ›
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The application of principles of molecular biology to treat disease or modify organisms for commercial purposes is generally referred to as genetic engineering.What is a master of biochemistry and molecular biology? ›
The Master of Science in Biochemistry & Molecular Biology at Georgetown University is a basic science program that infuses core concepts of biochemistry and molecular biology as applied to biomedical sciences and biotechnology, providing students with a rigorous and challenging curriculum.What is the impact factor biochemistry & molecular biology? ›
The impact score (IS) 2021 of Reports of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is 1.60, which is computed in 2022 as per its definition.What is the impact factor of biochemistry molecular biology education? ›
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