Chemical Biology

Chemical Biology Definition

Chemical biology is a scientific discipline that combines chemistry and biology by using chemistry and chemical techniques to study biological systems. The main difference between chemical biology and biochemistry is that chemical biology involves adding novel chemical compounds to a biological system, while biochemistry is the study of chemical reactions that naturally happen inside organisms. Examples of chemical biology research include controlling cell division and other cell activities, using small molecules as targets for treatment, and manipulating stem cells.

History of Chemical Biology

Chemical biology research, along with many other types of scientific research, made many breakthroughs beginning in the 19th Century. In 1828, the German chemist Friedrich Wöhler isolated the molecule urea. This is a compound found in urine, and he obtained it by mixing chemicals such as ammonium chloride and silver cyanate. Previously, urea had only been obtained from living things such as humans and dogs. At this time, there was widespread belief in a “vital force” necessary for all biological compounds, but Wöhler’s research showed that biological compounds could be made from inorganic materials.

Cellular imaging, which is very important chemical biology, was also developed during this time, and useful compounds like aniline dye for staining cells were invented. In addition, chemicals began to be used to treat certain conditions by targeting specific pathogens. For example, the chemical compound Salvarsan, invented by Paul Elrich in the 19th Century, was used to treat syphilis by targeting the bacteria that caused it. Salvarsan was a huge improvement over the previous treatment at the time, which involved administering mercury. Mercury treatment caused serious problems such as blackened and loose teeth, kidney failure, and even death from mercury poisoning. In the latter half of the 19th Century, the Swiss biochemist Friedrich Miescher used chemical compounds to isolate and break down the nuclei of cells. He obtained substances that would be later termed “nucleic acids”, and we know now that nucleic acids make up DNA, the genetic information of the cell.

All of this research occurred before chemical biology was a separate field from chemistry and biology, but it helped provide the foundation for the field to emerge. Chemical biology began to be thought of as a separate field in the 20th Century—the term only came into widespread use in the 1990s—and researchers are sometimes still at a loss to describe what exactly it is. It includes a wide range of research topics like enzymology, medicinal chemistry, structural biology, and proteomics (the study of proteins). It also involves a lot of collaboration between scientists who specialize in biology or chemistry.

Differences Between Chemical Biology and Biochemistry

Chemical biology adds chemical compounds to biological systems in order to see what effect these chemicals have on cells and tissues. Chemical biologists often synthesize and add new compounds to cells. The goal of chemical biology research is to develop techniques that can eventually be applied to cells in a living organism, such as treatment options for cancer and other diseases. Biochemistry, on the other hand, is all about the chemical processes that already occur naturally in the cell. Instead of adding chemical compounds to cells to see the effects, biochemistry researchers study the chemical reactions that occur in organisms and the molecular makeup of these compounds. Biochemists also tend to study larger molecules like proteins and nucleic acids, while chemical biologists study smaller molecules.

Examples of Chemical Biology Research

Controlling mitosis, or cell division, is one important goal of chemical biology research. Cell division is essential in the growth and development process of cells, and uncontrolled cell division is the immediate cause of cancer, so it is an extremely crucial in cancer treatment research. One example of a compound that may be important for cancer treatment is Monastrol, which disrupts cell division by interfering with the activity of a protein that is part of the mitotic spindle. The mitotic spindle separates chromosomes during cell division.

Another area of cell biology research is using small molecules to target receptors on the cell membrane. This type of treatment has successfully been used in treating epilepsy and for controlling the bladder and other smooth muscles. Scientists are working on improving the effectiveness of the drugs that are currently in use for treating patients. Additionally, research is underway on molecules like antioxidants, which could possibly be administered to cells to prevent damage from free radicals.

Chemical Biology Careers

Cancer research
This scientist is performing cancer research in a laboratory.

Chemical biology focuses on research, so higher education in science is a must, and many chemical biologists have PhDs. Chemical biologists may major in biology or chemistry as undergraduate students, and some schools do offer chemical biology as an undergraduate major. Some individuals who go on to do chemical biology research may also have majored in biochemistry as an undergraduate, but it is important to remember that chemical biology and biochemistry are different fields, and that it may make more sense to major in biology or chemistry than biochemistry depending on what an individual’s interests are.

Once a bachelor’s degree is obtained, a person can work in a laboratory as a research technician, assisting with bench work and carrying out experiments that are designed by the principal investigator of the lab. Some people go on to get a master’s degree in chemical biology. People with master’s degrees can become research assistants and lab managers, and have more responsibility for daily lab operations. They may also have more input into the experiments that are done in the lab. In order to become a principal investigator of a lab, a person needs a PhD, and will probably have one or a few post-doctoral positions. Then, they can be hired as a professor, where they will do both teaching and research, or obtain a position in a medical laboratory.


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