A personal story of biochemistry unrest and why it wasn't the end of the world

In this issue, I will start with a personal story of my experience with biochemistry first, providing a little background on how I got to where I am and why, a few years ago, this was unimaginable. In my BSc Biomedical Sciences, I remember each year had a separate biochemistry module: ‘Biochemistry’, ‘Metabolic Biochemistry’, and ‘Diagnostic Biochemistry and Haematology’. At that time, all of these modules felt like learning the same subject over and over. In my first year, a cell biology professor said to our group of about 400 people while showing a slide of ‘abbreviated’ metabolic pathways in the human organism – perhaps you will want to make a friend. He did mention right after we do not have to learn them all by heart, but even that alone was enough to ingrain a biochemistry worry in me. So, with every year bringing a new module, I was successfully intimidated. After completing the course, I pursued an MSc in Medical Genomics because truthfully, this was my main interest and what I chose for my research project. About 7 years on, I realized why, even if I was not a biochemistry major, these 3 separate modules each year were necessary, and they were actually not all the same.

I never set out to become a biochemist or work in research in that area; it just never crossed my mind because I was hooked on genomics, so this is where I put my focus. While working on genomics research projects and later in structural biology, I realized more than I ever was able to in class, that the biochemistry background was paramount. (So now after years of dreading the word itself, I am grateful for biochemistry)

In my current role as a Research Assistant, I combine my formal training in genomics with some of the previously mentioned metabolic processes (let’s be honest, that slide from first year biochemistry still effectively gives me chills once in a while) in structural biology research. To explain thoroughly, it would most likely be more than one post, but I am here to make science accessible and fun to be around. So, let me start with what worked for me at the beginning of studying Biomedical Sciences.

Living organisms are made of systems, those of various tissues and those of cells. We have a multitude of cells and cell types that form our bodies – from skin cells to blood cells and everything in between. Each type of cell has its own organelles responsible for performing basic functions essential to the cell’s role. An organelle called the nucleus stores the genetic material, DNA, in packaged forms called chromosomes. We all have genes responsible for our visible features that have been passed down, like our eye color, for example. However, genetic material isn’t limited to determining visible traits; it also governs many functions we often overlook. Imagine this: as you’re reading, your cells are hard at work, utilizing the oxygen you breathe to trigger metabolic pathways, ensuring your body functions properly. And that’s just one example!

There are times when a metabolic pathway’s activity is disrupted for some reason, due to genetic mutation or environmental factors, which can cause issues. Environmental factors such as what you eat, drink, air quality, even the elements in the soil where you live (a story for another time) can have an impact on your health. It’s important to say – it’s not always either good or bad; it’s the balance that counts. Your genetic material has instructions, or recipes if you like, on how to make proteins that are necessary for executing various functions. Side note here in this post, but it’s very important on a daily basis: this is why you’ll be hearing about eating protein-rich foods forever, alongside healthy fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals – they all play important roles in the processes. The term protein also encompasses enzymes that are catalysts for many reactions happening in the organism. There are many types of enzymes for specific tasks; a prime example being pepsin, which is a digestive enzyme produced in the stomach that helps you break down the proteins into amino acids.

Another example, and one I am involved in through my work, is a group of enzymes called exoribonucleases, which are responsible for the degradation of RNA molecules and RNA processing. These enzymes play important roles in biological processes, including antiviral, antibacterial, and cell proliferation activities. In research settings, identifying the mode of action of this and many other enzymatic reactions can help understand how and why some cell products or lack of leads lead to potential disorders.

I think one of the main reasons that got me into science is that I wanted to understand what happens when things go wrong. Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s just as important to understand what it looks like when things are just right. If I could have you take away one thing from this, it would be: don’t discredit one subject you might not really like or are not especially good at – one day when you’re not expecting it, it will make sense and who knows what that could mean for you. It took some time and many encounters with biochemistry slides, but eventually, the connections between topics I enjoyed and those that were less appealing began to emerge, making sense of the three branches of biochemistry!

 

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