What is Biochemistry? Section

Many people explain Biochemistry as the study of the chemistry of life. It is actually far more than that. Biochemistry not only provides explanations for the complex chemical reactions taking places inside all cells. It also explains how cells are organised and compartmentalised to create different chemical environments, how cells receive and process signals from their environment, and how cells communicate and work together to form more complex structures such as microbial communities and organ systems. This is as true for simple prokaryotes and eukaryotes as it is for complex multicellular life such as ourselves. Above all life is dynamic and not static - cells move rapidly, change their shapes as they grow and divide.

Biochemistry isn't just about life. Cells age by processes that are still poorly understood. Some cells are programmed to die during development, or actively killed by the immune system or during starvation. This is achieved by complex biochemical and cell biological pathways - apoptosis and autophagy the process by which cells eat their internal constituents.

Modern Biochemistry encompasses many different disciplines ranging from Chemistry to Cell and Molecular Biology and aspects of Physics. Because of this we now have light microscopes that can visualise structures smaller than the wavelength of light. Something long thought to be impossible. Even more recent advances in electron microscopy mean that we can now “see” the structure of individual proteins and protein complexes, something previously only possible using protein crystallography.

The Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford is a centre for world class research and teaching of all these aspects of Biochemistry by staff from many different backgrounds and nationalities. Our research addresses a wide range of questions relating to the fundamental basis of all cellular life from man to microbes. This work explains the structures and functions of proteins and nucleic acids, and in doing so addresses the mechanisms of many human diseases. Using this knowledge, other researchers aim to create new vaccines, antiviral and antibacterial therapies to protect and treat humans across the world.

You can read more about the details of our current work and other aspects of the department, including undergraduate teaching and public outreach activities, on these web pages.

Professor Francis Barr, Head of Department

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