Is biochemistry a tool

or a discipline?

Published March 01 2017

Spoiler alert! The answer to the question posed in the title is clear: It’s both.

But the distinction is important. When asking this question to new graduate students or some seasoned investigators, it’s not unusual to hear them declare that biochemistry is “just a tool.” Indeed, biochemists have developed methods and reagents that are essential for other disciplines. But biochemistry is more than just a collection of techniques. As a discipline, biochemistry is characterized by the mechanistic insights and predictive power that it produces.

The confusion inspired by the question is partly due to the fact that, as a distinct discipline, biochemistry seems on the verge of becoming a victim of its own success. This success is largely due to technical approaches and intellectual discoveries that have cracked questions of fundamental and clinical importance in biomedical research. Neuroscientists, immunologists, cancer biologists, structural biologists and physiologists, among others, all take advantage of these biochemical approaches and discoveries. However, this prompts the question as to who exactly is a biochemist and, relatedly, whether it makes sense to have a discipline devoted to biochemistry.

For example, what is the difference between a neuroscientist or pharmacologist using biochemical tools and a biochemist working in a neuronal system or studying a pharmacological problem? This question highlights the fact that scientists often identify themselves with the system they are studying. Take the individuals who exploit proteomic and lipidomic techniques and enzymatic assays to examine the interactions of drugs or toxins with specific cellular components. They would identify themselves, validly, as pharmacologists despite the biochemical underpinnings of their studies.

Strictly speaking, a biochemist is someone who studies the underlying chemistry of biological processes and systems. Traditionally, biochemistry encompasses the study of the chemistry essential to biological processes including, but not restricted to, enzymes, metabolism and signal transduction. Importantly, the use of purified components and cell-free systems for these studies has been a defining hallmark of the biochemistry discipline. Dyed-in-the-wool biochemists focus heavily on defining the chemical mechanisms that drive the biology. They don’t identify with a single biological system, even though they may have chosen to focus on one for their studies. It is this mechanistic focus that defines the biochemistry discipline and has resulted in key intellectual discoveries and technological advances.

It is essential to have a standalone community of biochemists. These are the people who want to understand the chemical details of life in all its forms. It is important to be able to ask a colleague about the affinity of a substrate in an obscure reaction and to have that question taken as a serious challenge and not an annoying detail. We need a space where understanding DNA repair in a deep-sea mollusk is given the same weight as in a mammalian cell.

Maintaining biochemistry as a discipline is essential to the progress of all the biological sciences. We need the intellectual and physical space to delve deeply into mechanisms. Time and again, these mechanisms have been shown to be broadly applicable. Biochemists develop the critical tools to illuminate these mechanisms that ultimately we will share with our colleagues in different disciplines. As biochemists, these tools are one of our major contributions to the broader biomedical research enterprise. If scientists want tools, they will want to keep and respect biochemistry as an independent discipline.

Binks Wattenberg Binks Wattenberg is an associate professor in the department of biochemistry and molecular biology at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Enrique M. De La Cruz Enrique M. De La Cruz is a first-generation Cuban-American from New Jersey and a professor of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University.
Daniel M. Raben Daniel M. Raben is a professor in the department of biological chemistry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a member of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Lipid Research Division.