Into the Basics of the Main Principles of Biochemistry

Biochemistry defined as the chemistry of life processes, focuses on the molecules of life from its building blocks to its metabolites. Biochemists focus on unveiling the structures, functions and interactions of biological macromolecules. 

  1. Structure and function of chemical building blocks of life 

99% of the mass of living cells are comprised of six key chemical elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. There are four main biomolecules, essential for the recipe of Life: 

  • Carbohydrates: sugar, starches and fibers commonly found in the diet (fruits, vegetables, grains and milk products). A well-known example is glucose (C6H12O6), the simplest sugar, an important energy source and a real treat for your taste buds. 
  • Lipids: organic compounds insoluble in water (like oil!) including fats, oils, hormones. Most have amphipathic behaviour ie contain both hydrophobic “water hating” and hydrophilic “water-loving” properties. Lipids play key roles in energy storage, signalling and structural components (such as by wrapping cells to protect them from the extracellular environment!) 
  • Proteins: large molecules comprised of hundreds or thousands of amino acids attached together in a long chain. Their functional roles include speeding-up biochemical reactions, transporting molecules and maintaining cellular structure. Proteins are also prominent nutrients used as fuel sources in the body. 
  • Nucleic acids: main genetic information carrying molecules in all living cells and viruses. The two nucleic acid classes are: Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and ribonucleic acid (RNA), respectively the blueprints of life and protein synthesizers. 

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2. Role of enzymes in catalysing reactions of life

Enzymes “speed up” biochemical reactions that would otherwise occur beyond the lifespan of an organism and hence sustain Life. Some of the reactions they speed up include the breaking down of ingested proteins and fats from our diet, protection against viral DNA in bacteria and brewing of beer. As the enzymes are not consumed in the reactions, they speed up they can be re-used. 

Their functional roles are also affected by pH, temperature and concentration. Biochemists rely on structural (x-ray crystallography, nuclear magnetic resonance), kinetic (measuring enzyme activity and operating optimal conditions) and mutagenesis studies (mutating a naturally present amino acid into another one) to better characterise the enzymes. 

3. Primary metabolic pathways that power cells 

Metabolism refers to the mechanisms used by cells to harness the energy from their environment via chemical reactions: the conversion of food to energy for cellular processes, life building block synthesis and metabolic waste elimination. Metabolic reactions are either catabolic (break down compounds and release energy, important in conducting most biological mechanisms) or anabolic (build up compounds and consumes energy).