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Biochemistry Staff


Biochemistry is the study of the chemistry of the living world. Biochemists study organisms at the molecular level in order to understand how they carry out life processes. In laboratory experiments, the biochemist separates substances isolated from living cells and determines their chemical structures and properties. Then these substances are put back together under controlled conditions to find out how they interact.

What does all this mean? Let's illustrate by example. The fermentation process by which sugar from cellulosic plant wastes is chemically changed into alcohol underlies the production of gasohol. Yet the fermentation of sugars in fruit juice is one of the oldest cottage industries, having been practiced long before the word "biochemistry" ever existed. The origins of biochemistry lie in the study of these fermentation processes.

Louis Pasteur discovered that transformation of sugar to alcohol is caused by a living organism, yeast. Eduard Buchner later expanded upon that conclusion by grinding up yeast cells and extracting a water-soluble, cell-free "juice" that could ferment sugar to alcohol in the absence of living cells. Pasteur had done a biology experiment. He showed that fermentation was a life process that occurred in a living organism. Buchner had done a biochemistry experiment. He showed that living cells could be taken apart. A mixture of dissolved substances, lifeless molecules, could still carry out the "life process" of fermentation.

Biochemists study how living organisms extract food and energy from their environment and how they use the extracted molecules to make more of themselves. Buchner, by taking apart yeast cells, had opened the way to ask biochemical questions like: What kinds of molecules cause fermentation? How many different molecules are necessary? Why does the yeast cell do it? Why does it only happen if you keep oxygen out? These are questions that can be answered by separating the "dissolved substances" in the "juice" and asking what they are, how they interact with each other, and how their properties are related to their chemical nature.

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