Biochemistry The study of the substances and chemical processes which occur in living organisms. It includes the identification and quantitative determina­tion of the substances, studies of their structure, determining how they are synthe­sized and degraded in organisms, and elucidating their role in the operation of the organism.

Substances studied in biochemistry include carbohydrates (including simple sugars and large polysaccharides), proteins (such as enzymes), ribonucleic acid (RNA) and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), lipids, minerals, vitamins, and hormones.

Metabolism and energy production. Many of the chemical steps involved in the biological breakdown of sugars, lipids (fats), and amino acids are known. It is well established that living organisms capture the energy liberated from these reactions by forming a high-energy compound, adenosine triphosphate (ATP). In the absence of oxygen, some organisms and tissues derive ATP from an incomplete breakdown of glucose, degrading the sugar to an alcohol or an acid in the process. In the presence of oxygen, many organisms degrade glucose and other foodstuff to carbon dioxide and water, producing ATP in a process known as oxidative phosphorylation.

Structure and function studies. The relationship of the structure of enzymes to their catalytic activity is becoming increasingly clear. It is now possible to visualize atoms and groups of atoms in some enzymes by x-ray crystallography. Some enzyme­catalyzed processes can now be described in terms of the spatial arrangement of the groups on the enzyme surface and how these groups influence the reacting molecules to promote the reaction. It is also possible to explain how the catalytic activity of an enzyme may be increased or decreased by changes in the shape of the enzyme molecule. An important advance has been the development of an automated procedure for joining amino acids together into a predetermined sequence. This technology will permit the synthesis of slightly altered enzymes and will improve the understanding of the relationship between the structure and the function of enzymes. In addition, this procedure permits the synthesis of medically important polypeptides (short chains of amino acids) such as some hormones and antibiotics.

Molecular genetics. A subject of intensive investigation has been the explanation of genetics in molecular terms. It is now well established that genetic information is encoded in the sequence of nucleotides of DNA and that, with the exception of some viruses which utilize RNA, DNA is the ultimate repository of genetic information. The sequence of amino acids in a protein is programmed in DNA; this information is first transferred by copying the nucleotide sequence of DNA into that of messenger RNA, from which this sequence is translated into the specific sequence of amino acids of the protein.

The biochemical basis for a number of genetically inherited diseases, in which the cause has been traced to the production of a defective protein, has been determined. Sickle cell anemia is a striking example; it is well established that the change of a single amino acid in hemoglobin has resulted in a serious abnormality in the properties of the hemoglobin molecule.

Regulation. Increased understanding of the chemical events in biological processes has permitted the investigation of the regulation of these proceses. An important con­cept is the chemical feedback circuit: the product of a series of reactions can itself influence the rates of the reactions. For example, the reactions which lead to the pro­duction of ATP proceed vigorously when the supply of ATP within the cell is low, but they slow down markedly when ATP is plentiful. These observations can be explained, in part, by the fact that ATP molecules bind to some of the enzymes involved, chang­ing the surface features of the enzymes sufficiently to decrease their effectiveness as catalysts. It is also possible to regulate these reactions by changing the amounts of the enzymes; the amount of an enzyme can be controlled by modulating the synthesis of its specific messenger RNA or by modulating the translation of the information of the RNA molecule into the enzyme molecule. Another level of regulation involves the in­teraction of cells and tissues in multicellular organisms. For instance, endocrine glands can sense certain tissue activities and appropriately secrete hormones which control these activities. The chemical events and substances involved in cellular and tissue “communication” have become subjects of much investigation.

Photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation. Two subjects of substantial interest are the processes of photosynthesis and nitrogen fixation. In photosynthesis, the chemical reactions whereby the gas carbon dioxide is converted into carbohydrate are under­stood, but the reactions whereby light energy is trapped and converted into the chemical energy necessary for the synthesis of carbohydrate are unclear. The process of nitro­gen fixation involves the conversion of nitrogen gas into a chemical form which can be utilized for the synthesis of numerous biologically important substances; the chemical events of this process are not fully understood.



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