What is biochemistry?

Before launching into my model trying to answer the question, "What is biochemistry?" I want to present a serious disclaimer. The discussion that follows is a working model of a very complex subject.  As it should be clear to trained scientists and scholars a model is meant to be tested and revised.  I want to make it obvious that I am encouraging suggestions for revision and improvement of this model.  As I begin think through all of the various way to define biochemistry, let it be understood that in no way am I trying to alienate or exclude individuals who have spent countless hours defining the field of biochemistry or its related disciplines.  With that said I humbly continue...

As scientific disciplines become more interrelated there arises the need to define certain boundaries.  These boundaries may not have a practical use in a research paradigm but in a teaching environment, particularly with respect to specific courses, majors and instructors, there clearly is a need to have a working model of where biochemistry begins and more importantly where it ends.  Rather than defining biochemistry by listing a group of academic courses, I would rather present a philosophy of how a biochemist approaches a problem and the set of tools he or she may use to solve the problem.

Biochemistry is the study of the molecules and their chemistry in reactions that facilitate the processes in a living system.  My model of biochemistry is a reductionist's view.  While other disciplines may ask how does this molecule fit into the entire system, the biochemist may ask how does this individual molecule accomplish the tasks it was designed to do.   We glean information from other studies about what it does and where it does it and continually look inward to better define the structure and function of these life giving molecules.  Certain specific goals of a biochemist may include deducing a reaction mechanism, defining the structure of an active site or quantitating physical parameters of an isolated molecule.  With careful study and scrutiny the biochemist strives to define macromolecules in terms used by organic and physical chemists.  In addition to detailed structural information from x-ray crystallography or NMR studies; reaction rates, pKa measurements, nucleophiles, leaving groups, steric hindrance and changes in free energy are not uncommon topics found in biochemistry textbooks.

To this end, biochemistry may be defined by the tools used by biochemists.  I am suggesting that biochemistry may involve more quantitative aspects than other related fields.  Analytical techniques are used to accurately measure purity, concentration and product formation as a function of time.  Biochemistry also relies heavily on the science chromatography to isolate and purify target molecules.  A well trained biochemist is not without need for resources in bioinformatics, genetics, bacteriology, physiology and molecular biology to obtain not only the biomolecules of interest but also information to push their investigations further inward.

In an academic setting where does the biochemist stand?  The biochemist stands upon the knowledge of fundamental organic reactions and physical chemistry and applies these to the processes of biological molecules.  They are not blind to how these molecules relate to greater cellular processes but choose to pass along their detailed structural and mechanistic information to colleagues who specialize in the system-wide study of life's chemistry.

Here at St. Olaf we might see a biochemistry student looking at the following foundations of living systems:

Cellular     Chemical     Physical     Genetic     Evolutionary

My biochemistry curriculum would have the student focus on the Chemical and Physical foundations leaving the cellular, genetic and evolutionary components for other courses.

Topically, the necessary Chemical Foundations would draw upon both organic chemistry and inorganic/general chemistry

Organic Chemistry:
functional groups
resonance structures
reaction mechanisms
General Chemistry:
periodic trends
acid/base chemistry

And the Physical foundations would draw upon physical chemistry and analytical chemistry

Physical Chemistry
free energy
Analytical Chemistry