Biochemistry is a fundamental science, which deals with the building blocks and components of living organisms, as well as their functioning and physical qualities. It is a very broad discipline with two main objectives: to identify and describe the chemical components of life, and secondly, to discover how these components act and interact in processes essential to life. This is the area where important discoveries are made in the war against cancer, AIDS and in biotechnology (e.g. the conversion of biological material into fuel).
Biochemists deal with phenomena that distinguish the living from the non-living in chemical and physical terms. They work with animals, plants or micro-organisms and endeavour to bridge the gap between the highly integrated activity of the living cell (a biological unit) and the properties of its individual components.
The nature of the work varies with the field of work chosen. Some biochemists research new products or ways of re-using waste materials. Others try to develop better methods for water purification or are involved in the control and purification of foods. A few work in industries where products are manufactured through chemical processes and reactions (biotechnology). Biotechnology is used in areas as diverse as household products, cosmetics, musical instruments, preservatives, agriculture, detergents, medicines, fuels, communication media, explosives, rockets, nutrients, fertilisers, etc.
Some examples from the past include the discovery of the Rhesus factor in blood. At the beginning of the 20th century, blood transfusions were very dangerous and even when the outcome was successful it was a touch-and-go affair which sometimes led to fatalities. Karl Landsteiner, in 1900, identified four major blood groups and devised ways of identifying them. In 1940, he made another contribution with his discovery of the Rh (Rhesus) factor.
A second example is the discovery of vitamins. In the late 20th century, a balanced diet was taken for granted but early in the century, it was only suspected that some foods contained health-giving properties. In 1890 a Dutch medical officer observed that the incidence of beriberi was linked to diet and that it was better to eat brown rice than white rice. He was partly correct but the right answer was found by the British biochemist, F.C. Hopkins, when he discovered vitamins.
Biochemists may be involved in the development of antibiotics and the testing of human body reactions to certain medicines. They may also work in the fields of genetics and forensic science.
To clarify the difference between biochemists and other types of chemists, the following should be useful:
Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, North-West University, Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, Sol Plaatjies University, University of Johannesburg, University of Pretoria, University of Stellenbosch, University of the Western Cape