The history of biochemistry spans approximately 400 years. Although the term “biochemistry” seems to have been first used in 1882, it is generally accepted that the word “biochemistry” was first proposed in 1903 by Carl Neuberg, a German chemist.

Biochemistry is the study of chemical processes in living organisms. Biochemistry governs all living organisms and living processes. By controlling information flow through biochemical signalling and the flow of chemical energy through metabolism, biochemical processes give rise to the incredible complexity of life. Much of biochemistry deals with the structures and functions of cellular components such as proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, nucleic acids and other biomolecules although increasingly processes rather than individual molecules are the main focus. Over the last 40 years biochemistry has become so successful at explaining living processes that now almost all areas of the life sciences from botany to medicine are engaged in biochemical research. Today the main focus of pure biochemistry is in understanding how biological molecules give rise to the processes that occur within living cells which in turn relates greatly to the study and understanding of whole organisms.

Among the vast number of different biomolecules, many are complex and large molecules (called polymers), which are composed of similar repeating subunits (called monomers). Each class of polymeric biomolecule has a different set of subunit types. For example, a protein is a polymer whose subunits are selected from a set of 20 or more amino acids. Biochemistry studies the chemical properties of important biological molecules, like proteins, and in particular the chemistry of enzyme-catalyzed reactions.

The biochemistry of cell metabolism and the endocrine system has been extensively described. Other areas of biochemistry include the genetic code (DNA, RNA), protein synthesis, cell membrane transport, and signal transduction.


Eduard Buchner

As early as the late 18th century and early 19th century, the digestion of meat by stomach secretions and the conversion of starch to sugars by plant extracts and saliva were known. However, the mechanism by which this occurred had not been identified.

In the 19th century, when studying the fermentation of sugar to alcohol by yeastLouis Pasteur came to the conclusion that this fermentation was catalyzed by a vital force contained within the yeast cells called “ferments“, which were thought to function only within living organisms. He wrote that “alcoholic fermentation is an act correlated with the life and organization of the yeast cells, not with the death or putrefaction of the cells.”

In 1878 German physiologist Wilhelm Kühne (1837–1900) coined the term enzyme, which comes from Greek ενζυμον “in leaven”, to describe this process. The wordenzyme was used later to refer to nonliving substances such as pepsin, and the word ferment used to refer to chemical activity produced by living organisms.

In 1897 Eduard Buchner began to study the ability of yeast extracts to ferment sugar despite the absence of living yeast cells. In a series of experiments at theUniversity of Berlin, he found that the sugar was fermented even when there were no living yeast cells in the mixture. He named the enzyme that brought about the fermentation of sucrose “zymase“. In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for his biochemical research and his discovery of cell-free fermentation”. Following Buchner’s example; enzymes are usually named according to the reaction they carry out. Typically the suffix -ase is added to the name of the substrate(e.g.lactase is the enzyme that cleaves lactose) or the type of reaction (e.g.DNA polymerase forms DNA polymers).

Having shown that enzymes could function outside a living cell, the next step was to determine their biochemical nature. Many early workers noted that enzymatic activity was associated with proteins, but several scientists (such as Nobel laureate Richard Willstätter) argued that proteins were merely carriers for the true enzymes and that proteins per se were incapable of catalysis. However, in 1926, James B. Sumner showed that the enzyme urease was a pure protein and crystallized it; Sumner did likewise for the enzyme catalase in 1937. The conclusion that pure proteins can be enzymes was definitively proved by Northrop and Stanley, who worked on the digestive enzymes pepsin (1930), trypsin and chymotrypsin. These three scientists were awarded the 1946 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

This discovery that enzymes could be crystallized eventually allowed their structures to be solved by x-ray crystallography. This was first done for lysozyme, an enzyme found in tears, saliva and egg whites that digests the coating of some bacteria; the structure was solved by a group led by David Chilton Phillips and published in 1965. This high-resolution structure of lysozyme marked the beginning of the field of structural biology and the effort to understand how enzymes work at an atomic level of detail.


The term metabolism is derived from the Greek Μεταβολισμός – Metabolismos for “change”, or “overthrow”. The history of the scientific study of metabolism spans 400 years. The first controlled experiments in human metabolism were published by Santorio Santorio in 1614 in his book Ars de statica medecina. This book describes how he weighed himself before and after eating, sleeping, working, sex, fasting, drinking, and excreting. He found that most of the food he took in was lost through what he called “insensible perspiration”.

20th century

Santorios Meal

Since then, biochemistry has advanced, especially since the mid-20th century, with the development of new techniques such as chromatographyX-ray diffractionNMR spectroscopyradioisotopic labellingelectron microscopy and molecular dynamics simulations. These techniques allowed for the discovery and detailed analysis of many molecules and metabolic pathways of the cell, such as glycolysis and the Krebs cycle (citric acid cycle). One of the most prolific of these modern biochemists wasHans Krebs who made huge contributions to the study of metabolism.He discovered the urea cycle and later, working with Hans Kornberg, the citric acid cycle and the glyoxylate cycle.

In 1960, the biochemist Robert K. Crane revealed his discovery of the sodium-glucose cotransport as the mechanism for intestinal glucose absorption. This was the very first proposal of a coupling between the fluxes of an ion and a substrate that has been seen as sparking a revolution in biology.

Today, the findings of biochemistry are used in many areas, from genetics to molecular biology and from agriculture to medicine.



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