Biochemistry and molecular biology are complex and rapidly growing disciplines, fascinating in their own right and with much to offer other areas of biological research, including biomedical science, physiology, and evolutionary studies. Biochemistry can roughly be divided into two sub-disciplines – a structural/functional branch that examines the biophysics of molecular interactions, that is, how the complex three-dimensional character of biomolecules suits them to their particular tasks, and a metabolic branch that examines reaction pathways within cells and discerns how the flow of energy and material is controlled in order to allow living organisms to grow and reproduce. BIO 334 examines this latter component of biochemistry.
In studying metabolic pathways, BIO 334 students, in a sense, study all of life, because many metabolic pathways are shared by taxa, such as Archaea and Eukarya, whose last common ancestors existed over a billion years ago. This suggests that these pathways 1) were developed early during the evolution of life; 2) are highly efficient at doing what they do (in other words, despite a billion years of evolution, no major modifications have occurred); and 3) now may be so fundamental and central to other processes that natural selection cannot alter them except at the fringes.
The lecture component of the course focuses on specific metabolic pathways, control of those pathways, and, where appropriate, function of specific enzymes and how they exert effects on the overall flow of energy or materials within the cell. Time is also spent exploring how errors in metabolism lead to disease, and how organisms in different environments modify basic biochemical pathways to overcome unique challenges. In the latter part of the course, students study how cells maintain the populations of enzymes necessary for metabolism, by examining the translation and transcription machinery that leads to functional proteins, and the ultimate fate of those proteins in the metabolic cycle.
Discussions of recent literature dealing with metabolic biochemistry are also an important component of the course. Pairs of students are responsible for selecting and presenting papers on topics of their choice, which serve as an opportunity to explore more detailed descriptions of metabolic processes, comparative biochemistry, and clinical applications of biochemical research.