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Significant biochemists and experiments

Significant biochemists and experiments that led to important advances in biochemical knowledge
Within this MOOC we review a wide number of biochemical discoveries and important biochemists.
Our journey through this topic begins during the second half of the 19th century, when the term “biochemistry” (and its German/French equivalent “biochimie”) started to be used. This term became synonymous with “physiological chemistry” or the “chemistry of life”,
particularly within medical schools that taught this topic to assist understanding of human disease. Now biochemists have increased our knowledge and understanding of cellular metabolism as illustrated by experiments during the 1930s when Hans Krebs discovered the urea cycle. A series of chemical reactions that convert toxic ammonia into the waste product urea and then the citric acid cycle which is used to obtain energy from food. The discovery of these key metabolic pathways led to Krebs being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1953. Powerful techniques have prompted important developments in biochemistry as typified by the use of X-ray crystallography which allows the detailed structure of biomolecules to be determined.
A forerunner is this aspect was Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin who’s studies on the important vitamin B12 led to her being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1964. In week 2 of this MOOC we’re going to move on to discuss bioenergy and bioenergetics, with a particular focus on the nitrogen cycle, a series of processes in which nitrogen is converted into different forms as it circulates between the atmosphere and terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Work in this area builds on studies from the chemist Fritz Haber who was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1918. In our discussion about bioenergetics one of the most important molecules is ATP and this is often referred to as the energy currency of cells.
Finally in week 3 of the MOOC we’re going to look how biochemistry may be used in the future to improve human health and to reduce our negative impact on the environment. We’re also going to consider its links to recent developments in molecular biology, genetics and synthetic biology. Now these topics began to establish themselves in 1953 with major developments in our understanding of DNA. This remarkable molecule in central to all cellular life. In this year Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, Morris Wilkins and their associated colleagues reported the double-stranded helical structure of this remarkable molecule.
After Franklin’s death in 1957 their work was recognised by the awarding of the Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine in 1962 to Crick, Watson and Wilkins. The potential usefulness of these studies has been important for improving our understanding of human health and disease was illustrated in 2003 with the completion and publication of the human genome sequence. This breakthrough helped scientists to find errors in genes that can cause disease and also allows us to find totally new genes and in some cases to even predict their functions. In 2009 the first comprehensive analysis of cancer genomes was published which used information on the DNA sequence to unravel the genomic details of thirty cancer types, including lung cancer and malignant melanoma.
Advanced sequencing such as this is enabling scientists to improve screenings for cancers, track how cancers evolve and change over time and identify which drugs are likely to work best for which person.

This video highlights significant biochemists and experiments that led to important advances in biochemical knowledge. Further information about findings that have been important in biochemistry are available on the Biochemical Society website.

Findings highlighted in this video include:

Pre-1900: The term “biochemistry” (and its German/French equivalent “biochimie”) becomes synonymous with “physiological chemistry” or the “chemistry of life”. Medical schools start to teach that these studies are important for understanding human disease.

1902: First Chair (Professorship) of Biochemistry appointed at the University of Liverpool

1918: Fritz Haber awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1918 “for the synthesis of ammonia from its elements”.

1933, 1937 & 1953: Krebs discovers urea cycle and subsequently the citric acid cycle

1953: Crick, Franklin, Watson, Wilkins and colleagues report the double helical structure of DNA. After Franklin’s death in 1957, this work was recognised by the awarding of the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962 to Crick, Watson and Wilkins. (For an overview of the research that led to solving of this structure, see the link to the article in Nature in October 2019.)

1964: Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin awarded the Nobel prize in Chemistry for her development of X-ray crystallography techniques that allow the structure of biomolecules to be determined at a high resolution.

1978: Nobel prize in Chemistry awarded to Peter Mitchell “for his contribution to the understanding of biological energy transfer through the formulation of the chemiosmotic theory”.

1997: Nobel prize in Chemistry awarded to Paul Boyer and John Walker “for their elucidation of the enzymatic mechanism underlying the synthesis of ATP”.

2003: Completion and publication of human genome sequence.

Further information about some of these findings and biochemists is available on the Biochemical Society website.

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Biochemistry: the Molecules of Life

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