December 2009

A New Biochemistry


Earlier this fall, the National Research Council released “A New Biology for the 21st Century,” a report calling for a new national biology initiative. The report, authored by a committee of the nation’s leading biologists, envisions a new interagency approach to biological research that would augment existing research programs and tackle societal problems related to food, the environment, energy and health.

For more information

• To view the National Research Council report, “A New Biology for the 21st Century,” go to

• For more science policy news, information and opinion, visit the ASBMB Policy Blotter at

New Prominence

With an array of established theories and techniques that will help address the New Biology initiative’s societal challenges, biochemistry is likely to take on a central role in this initiative.

To guide the New Biology initiative’s research program, the committee outlined four societal challenges involving food, the environment, energy and health. According to the report, the New Biology initiative investigators should be tasked with (1) adapting any food plant to any growing conditions, (2) diagnosing and repairing ecosystem damage, (3) expanding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels and (4) achieving individualized health surveillance and care.

While biochemistry will be crucial in the creation of personalized medicine, its role will extend beyond human health. For example, adapting food plants to new growing conditions will require knowledge of the biochemical traits required for survival in different climates.

New Biochemists

As the New Biology initiative utilizes biochemistry to solve major societal problems, initially the ranks of biochemists are likely to expand from collaborations. Previously trained biologists, in fields not traditionally associated with biochemistry, will seek out collaborations with biochemists to tackle a problem.

But, the report underscores that “the emergence of the New Biology signals the need for changes in how scientists are educated and trained.” It recommends “the creation and implementation of interdisciplinary curricula, graduate training programs and educator training.” As biochemistry will be a central portion of the initiative, the development and implementation of interdisciplinary curricula is likely to expose even more biologists and scientists to the concepts and tools of biochemistry.

New Funding

The New Biology initiative will require a large investment of funding over a long period of time. Realistically, the report acknowledges that “the cost will be too large to be extracted from current research budgets.” If Congress allocates new funding for the initiative, biochemistry will benefit from the rising tide.

More importantly, the New Biology initiative is likely to open new funding opportunities for the biochemistry community. Its interagency approach would ask the scientific community to re-examine its highly compartmentalized structure. Currently, 11 different federal agencies fund life sciences research, and each has its own rules about the types of research it will fund. That creates particular problems for researchers who perform interdisciplinary research that does not fit under any single agency’s program. The New Biology initiative may help break down some of the traditional barriers while providing specific funding for interdisciplinary approaches. 

New Challenges

While biochemistry, biology and society will benefit from the initiative, serious questions remain about putting this initiative into practice. The report states that “the committee does not provide a detailed plan for implementation,” and with no details, policymakers are left with fundamental questions about what the New Biology initiative would look like. If it’s not an agency, then what is it? Who, or what, should run it? How much money over how long? How should it allocate funding? To whom?

Calling for this bold new initiative, the NRC has taken the first step. To make the recommendations a reality, scientists and policymakers must work together.

Kyle M. Brown ( is an ASBMB science policy fellow.

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