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Microbiology vs. Biochemistry

by David H. Nguyen, studioD

Microbiology and biochemistry have distinct definitions, but in practice they share many common goals. Their subjects of interest may seem different at first glance, but they have much to offer each other. Both fields study fundamental questions about how life works, but biochemistry is even more fundamental than microbiology in that it studies the molecules that make life possible. Biochemistry has many purposes, such as improving human health, for which microbiology becomes a tremendous help. Each field has its strength, but their true power emerges when they collaborate.

Small But Influential

Microbiology is the study of microscopic organisms, ones that are too small to be seen by the naked eye. These include bacteria, microscopic fungi, archaea, microscopic algae, protozoa and viruses. Microorganisms are an important part of the ecosystem, and help recycle compounds containing carbon, oxygen, phosphorous, and nitrogen into the geochemical cycles. Scientists study helpful organisms in order to improve their contributions to environmental problems. However, some microorganisms are harmful to humans because they cause disease. Scientist study these organisms to find ways of preventing or curing infections.

It Comes Down To The Basics

Biochemistry is the study of how chemicals react within living organisms. Biochemistry studies the structure and function of the four main macromolecules that comprise living matter: proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acids, lipids. Molecular interactions are at the heart of life’s processes. Cellular functions such as energy production, cell division, and cell-to-cell communication are done through molecules that interact according to their specific chemical properties. Thus, biochemistry is useful for the study of how one protein works -- just because of human curiosity -- or the study of how a life-saving drug can be improved by modifying its interaction with that one protein.

One Helps The Other

Biochemists devise new drugs to cure diseases. They study a chemical drug that binds to a protein and affects that protein’s function. They can produce this chemical in a test tube, but sometimes they find that microorganisms can be genetically engineered to make these chemicals much more efficiently than can be done test tube. For example, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have modified E. coli bacteria to produce artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug. Other scientists are modifying E. coli so that they convert substances into clean fuels such as ethanol.

Returning The Favor

Biochemistry not only benefits from microbiology, but it returns the favor by helping microbiologists better understand the workings of a viral or bacterial infection. Microbiologists study HIV to learn how it infects a cell. HIV has a docking protein that binds to the surface of a human lymphocyte. Microbiologists use biochemistry methods to understand the structure and function of the docking protein in hopes of discovering something that will lead to a new treatment. This is an example of how biochemistry helps microbiology.

About the Author

David H. Nguyen holds a PhD and is a cancer biologist and science writer. His specialty is tumor biology. He also has a strong interest in the deep intersections between social injustice and cancer health disparities, which particularly affect ethnic minorities and enslaved peoples. He is author of the Kindle eBook "Tips of Surviving Graduate & Professional School."

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