Monday, August 29, 2011

Greater than the sum of our parts

It sounds cheesy (and it is), but as a child I would often wonder at the nature of life, how our bodies function and heal, how we can be living things composed entirely of non-living things, and how we figure in the wider setting of life on Earth. As an adult, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to answer many of my childhood questions through my undergraduate studies and subsequent front-line postgraduate research. I found, however, that far from satisfying my curiosity, my questions simply now contain more acronyms of which most people outside the field wouldn’t be aware! It seems that we never stop being inquisitive and hungry for new understanding. It is the insatiable curiosity of our species that has got us where we are today and will be what builds our futures for (hopefully) a very long time to come. My curiosity for subjects of which I know little is as keen now as it was when I was younger and I relish any chance to learn something novel and interesting. It is my hope that through this blog I will be able to give you some insight into the current state and ongoing work of biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics and so answer some of the questions that might be in that inquisitive part of your mind that we all share.

In a real sense, these three fields are just part of the vast spectrum of natural sciences, but conventionally biochemistry focuses on the structure, function and chemistry of biomolecules; molecular biology deals with how these molecules are organised within living cells and how they interact with one another to achieve specific goals; and genetics describes how the regulation of these biomolecules by DNA and other genetic material translates into organism-scale effects. The boundaries between these areas are extremely grey and there are also many other subgroups along the way, such as cell biology or biophysics.

I am a biochemist by training and now work in the field of molecular biology. Biochemistry and molecular biology are profound testaments to the power of collaborative research. 150 years ago we had essentially no significant comprehension of even the most basic molecular processes of life; chemistry and biology stood completely apart and were very seldom combined. It was in the mid-19th century that early pioneers began to address the lack of understanding of the chemistry of living organisms, primarily looking at readily available biological fluids, such as blood, urine and bile. Haemoglobin was initially isolated in 1840 by exploiting the increasing sophistication of chemical techniques, becoming the first example of protein purification. However, simply purifying a biological molecule is not enough, one must determine its function, and it is in this endeavour that chemistry and biology truly combine. In the case of haemoglobin, this really began when its ability to bind oxygen was indentified by Felix Hoppe-Seyler 15 years after its original purification. The combination of chemical techniques and biological context and understanding had produced a fascinating new insight into how we and other organisms function at the molecular level and the field hasn’t looked back since! In the relatively short period of time since those early experiments the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry have exploded to become huge enterprises that encompass an enormous amount of work being conducted across the entire planet.

It has always been an important aspect of investigations into molecular biological processes that expertise and technologies from various fields have contributed to the researcher’s arsenal. Many of the most famous successes in the advancement of our understanding of biology have come from extremely collaborative approaches. The discovery of the DNA double-helix, for example, would have been impossible without the chemical expertise to generate and handle organic crystals, knowledge of physics allowing the generation of high-energy X-rays, the mathematical understanding to explain complex X-ray diffraction, the engineering capability to construct extremely finely-manoeuvrable instruments, or the biological understanding of the role and importance of DNA in the regulation of biology. This collaborative work contributed hugely to the establishment of the central dogma of molecular biology and brought the field of genetics into existence. As our understanding has increased, molecular biology has incorporated apparently more distant aspects of other sciences into its own. Our understanding of energy conversion within living cells would be impossible without the wave-particle duality description of electrons as provided by quantum mechanics; whilst many aspects of molecular immunology are dependent on observations of the organism as a whole. In many ways, attempting to pigeon-hole scientific endeavours is pointless as very little of science is pure any more and certainly the field of molecular biology never has been.

So, where next? As the boundaries of classically-defined sciences become less and less relevant we must look to expand our collaborations with ever broader and more eclectic areas of knowledge. The distinction between what is traditionally defined as ‘art’ or ‘science’ is also beginning to blur; leaving us instead with an enormous spectrum of ‘knowledge’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘philosophy’. It is only in the last few centuries that the term ‘science’ has replaced ‘philosophy’ as it became more necessary to distinguish between physical and theoretical research. However, as these distinctions become less relevant and, one could argue, a hindrance to research and creativity, is it more appropriate to describe all of what we know and have created under a single banner such as ‘philosophy’? The intentions of this blog and other similarly-minded ventures are to help to increase the cross-talk and sharing of knowledge between previously distinct spheres of research and to open up all creative and scientific endeavours to everyone such that we can all have a sense of ownership over them. As far as my contribution goes, I will attempt to share my wonder at the impossibly intricate and complex interactions and reactions that make up everything we are. I hope that you will learn things that you did not know and will find them interesting, and that you get a sense of what we do and do not know and how we are trying to fill in the blanks. I’m certainly looking forward to understanding more about cosmology, the aesthetic, and whatever other topics arise as we go forward! As Michelle discussed in her previous entry, curiosity and wonder are magnificent motivators and concentrators of human energy, and we hope here to excite curiosity in a wider audience and for a more diverse range of topics. With any luck, it will be a small contribution towards focussing the efforts of humanity towards a singular purpose of discovery and creativity.


  1. I am very curious to read (either in a comment, or a future post) how knowing about something like wave-particle duality is necessary to understanding processes occurring in a cell.

    The need for quantum mechanics I can see, but the need for wave-particle duality, specifically, is intriguing.

  2. It's an extremely interesting process and one that's well worth discussing! Bioenergetics, as it's called, has always been one of my favourite areas of biochemistry so I'll be sure to dedicate a post to it in the near future.

    I guess it's unsurprising that something like duality is important for life considering that life exists in the universe and quantum mechanics is an inherent part of the universe. It just seems more extraordinary once you couple it to processes that scale up to a size that we're used to.