Biochemistry, Nanotechnology, and the Future Help

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Aug 29, 2011

Introduction to Biochemistry and Nanotechnology

Chemistry is life! This should be everywhere on shirts and billboards! Chemistry describes the basic building blocks of matter. Atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, solids, liquids, and gases make up everything we know to exist in our world.

The fact that chemistry plays a big role in our lives is good news for people interested in working in chemistry or in fields that make use of specific element interactions. There are nearly as many practical applications as fields of study. Let’s look at a few of them.


The word biochemistry describes the chemistry of living systems. Some of these were described when we talked about organic chemistry and the molecules that make up living things.

One of the ways that changes take place in organic molecules is through the life cycle of microorganisms. A single-celled organism, through its metabolism , builds up or breaks down organic molecules.

The biological molecules that make up living cells, organs, systems, and the environment can be divided into four types: proteins, carbohydrates, nucleic acids , and lipids . Most of these molecules are simple structures covalently bonded to similar molecules, but some can reach incredible sizes in molecular terms. They are called macromolecules . Figure 18.1 shows an example of a macromolecule: β -carotene (the yellow color in carrots).

Biochemistry, Nanotechnology, and the Future Biochemistry

Fig. 18.1. The structure of β -carotene gives an idea of the complex nature of proteins.


Organic protein molecules serve different functions for living systems. Some offer structural strength, as in the chitin shells of crabs and bone of mammals, some provide transport, as in hemoglobin, some act as blueprints for cell and organ development (DNA), some serve as messengers (hormones) between body organs, and some speed up metabolic reactions (enzymes).

The molecular weight of proteins ranges from 6 × 10 3 to millions of atomic mass units.

Proteins are made up of small molecules that contain an amino group (−NH 2 ) and a carboxyl (−COOH) group. These molecules are called amino acids .

Most protein reactions are made up of many different combinations of amino acids reacting with water, salts, and other elements to create or enhance needed functions. Amino acids can contain a variety of non-protein ions like some of the metals (Zn 2+ , Fe 2+ , Mg 2+ ). For example, the hemoglobin molecule uses iron as a critical part of its function of transferring oxygen within living systems. Amino acids are bonded by peptide (C–N) bonds .

In 1908, a German chemist and medical researcher, Paul Ehrlich, working with aniline dyes in the staining of disease-causing microorganisms discovered that these chemical solutions could also kill the organisms without killing the patient. He shared the Nobel Prize for Medicine with Elie Metchnikoff in 1908 for his work. Two years later, Ehrlich developed the first antibacterial agent, salvarsan, to treat syphilis. Because of his interest in treating diseases with chemical cures, he became known as the father of chemotherapy .

There are many other areas where biochemistry led to important applications. In 1993, Kary Mullis received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the invention of a polymerase chain reaction technique for amplifying deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). That same year, Canadian chemist Michael Smith also received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his technique of splicing foreign gene segments, designed to modify the production of a specific protein, into another organism’s DNA. This opened the gates to a flood of research on designer proteins and molecules produced for a specific purpose.

Designed proteins are now being used for everything from better medicines, like insulin to treat diabetes and artificial fabrics to treat and protect burn patients, to industrial foams that clump and eliminate spills from oil tankers and medicines to counteract biological poisons.

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