Biochemists study all the cellular processes necessary for life. Some biochemists focus on understanding the roles of specific biological molecules, such as proteins or lipids, in living cells. Others try to understand how organisms make energy from the nutrients they obtain. Still, others investigate how different cells communicate with each other or how cells defend themselves from invaders. Finally, some biochemists study DNA, the basis of life, and how genetic information is copied, expressed and passed on.
Proteins are the worker molecules of cells. They are made of building blocks called amino acids. Twenty different amino acids make up the many different proteins in the body. Just as many words can be formed from the 26 letters of the alphabet, thousands of proteins can be formed by arranging the amino acids in different ways. Our genes are the blueprints that tell cells how to assemble amino acids in the correct order to make a particular protein. Biochemists study proteins to try to understand what amino acids are present and how the properties of the amino acids control protein structure and function.
Sometimes mistakes in genes can cause the amino acids in proteins to be “misspelled.” This can result in disease. Sickle-cell anemia is caused by a mistake in a gene that contains instructions for making hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying molecule of blood. This mistake results in a single amino acid change in the protein. The effect of this change is that the hemoglobin molecule no longer binds oxygen properly. The person’s red blood cells become stiff and sometimes bend into a sickle shape. The sickle-shaped cells can become stuck in the narrow blood vessels of the body and block the flow of blood. By studying proteins, biochemists hope to be able to understand why misspelled proteins behave the way they do and come up with drugs or other methods that will correct the problems.
Lipid and Membrane Biochemistry
Lipids are a class of molecules that include fats, oils, steroids, waxes, and other related compounds. The body stores lipids to use for energy. They are also important parts of cell membranes and serve as the building blocks for different structures. Some lipids act as signaling molecules- substances that carry a message between cells or from one part of the cell to another. Lipid biochemistry aims to determine what types of lipids are present in biological systems and in what amounts. It also explores whether these amounts can be influenced by the kind and quantity of lipids in the diet.
The goal of membrane biochemistry is to define the composition and function of cell membranes. Cell membranes are made up of both lipids and proteins. Different types of cells have different membrane components. Understanding these differences is important for learning how cells “talk” to one another, how viruses invade different types of cells, and how drugs are able to do their work.
In the next post, I will continue talking about what biochemists study and also the tools they use.
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