Biochemistry Becomes Us All

Pair of helix structures, showing one with missing H bond.

An illustration from the notes for Session 2 of 5.07SC Biological Chemistry I, describing the hierarchy in protein structure, with hemoglobin as an example. (Figure by O’Reilly Science Art for MIT OpenCourseWare.)

By Joe Pickett, OCW Publication Director

Did you know that life, in all its mindboggling diversity, from single-celled bacteria to reptiles, birds, and mammals, is made possible by ten simple chemical reactions?

These reactions, and their interconversions in our primary metabolic pathways, are the focus of 5.07SC Biological Chemistry I, just published on OCW.

It’s amazing, really. The basic reactions, their metabolic pathways, and the vitamins that are modified to make catalysts boosting still more reactions, are conserved across organisms.  “It doesn’t matter whether you study a bacteria or a human, the central metabolism is pretty much the same,” says star researcher Professor JoAnne Stubbe, one of the 5.07SC instructors. “The thing that’s different is the detailed regulation and the complexity of the regulation.”

So if you can understand the basics of biochemistry, you have the keys to understanding the living universe.

And the keys to understanding most diseases, since most diseases involve some sort of dysfunction in the regulation of metabolic reactions.

Co-Teaching with Varied Resources

A recipient of the National Medal of Science, Stubbe has devoted much of her career to elucidating the workings of nucleotide reductases, the enzymes involved in the chemical reactions essential to the biosynthesis of DNA and RNA. Professor Stubbe’s co-instructors are Professor John Essigmann and Dr. Bogdan Fedeles. Essigmann leads a lab that investigates how chemicals in the environment can damage DNA in cells and how cells respond to and sometimes repair the damage. Working in that lab, Fedeles and Essigmann have shown how chronic inflammation in the body can lead to cancer and how the HIV virus can be induced to deactivate itself after invading a cell.

As another of OCW’s Scholar courses, 5.07SC Biological Chemistry I abounds in learning resources. The course is arranged in a linear structure through three modules that reflect the shared teaching of the professors. Stubbe teaches the first part of the course, introducing fundamental reactions in her four Lexicon videos, and detailing further biochemical reactions through seven sessions in her illustrated lecture notes.

Starting in session 8, Professor Essigmann narrates a series of storyboard videos, showing how energy is produced in the cell and how that energy is used to make macromolecules like proteins.

In his own series of videos, Fedeles guides learners through carbonyl chemistry, pyridoxal phosphate (PLP) chemistry, and ten key problems sets distributed throughout the site.

All the learning resources are assembled on a single Resource Index page for convenient reference.

Envisioning Future Pathways for Students

The course site also features a series of video interview clips on its This Course at MIT page (“Meet the Educators” and “Instructor Insights”), in which Professors Stubbe and Essigmann share their reflections about how they teach biochemistry, what turned them on to biochemistry in the first place, what their research focuses on, and where they think biochemical research is headed. Topics include “Using the Vitamin Bottle as a Teaching Tool,” “How Can You Not Think Enzymes Are Cool?,” and “Motivating Students to Study Metabolic Biochemistry with Oncology Applications.”

So take a look at 5.07SC. Like the cell itself, it’s packed with material delivered with lots of energy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s