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Most Chemistry is Biochemistry?

  1. Nov 9, 2008 #1


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    This has stimulated me to get around to posing a question I've meant to for some time.

    Chemistry gets classified among the 'Natural Sciences'. Yet there is nothing very natural about it. Most of the chemistry you will ever see, you will see only in the laboratory or the factory. You not merely only see it in the laboratory, it only happens there. In daily life you will see results of artificial chemistry that has happened, not the chemistry happening. In fact its being outside ordinary experience is one good reason why the chemistry laboratory should be part of every education! Chemistry is profoundly revealing of the inwardness of Nature but it is in a sense not natural.

    You do not see chemistry in nature around you the way you see countless examples of the physics you learn, or biology at a certain level. Although for physics that is not quite as true as it at first seems. An important part of that is of course electricity and magnetism, whose study requires conductors, magnets, things that are fairly insignificant in the natural world and are essentially products of chemical technologies. But you can see fairly direct manifestations of most the themes of physics courses like gravitation, optics, radiation, vibrations, sound, heat, diffusion, friction, surface tension, etc. etc. in everyday Nature all around, and even more if you allow everyday technology all around us. And biology. But chemistry, you do not see.

    There is combustion, forest fires and rusting and so on, but the combustion is recombination of elements that have been biologically separated, the iron that rusts is a human technological product, so we cannot count these as non-biological 'Nature'. The abscence of natural nonbiological chemistry is sharper if I limit 'chemistry' to 'thermal chemistry' which most biochemistry and most taught chemistry is - excluding, that is, photochemistry and free radical chemistry which happens naturally in our upper atmosphere involving I suppose despite the rarefaction fairly large total masses but which are fairly minor parts of mainline chemical teaching and research.

    I have a feeling I might be missing something, that there is some chemical reaction that happens or has happened on a vast scale, but I feel if there were many reactions like that some would come to mind. Well now I reflect I suppose the rocks and minerals have different atoms close together, but a lot of them are noncovalent so I tend not to count that, then e.g. the O and Si , were they ever really separated, did they come together and react? If so was it just once and a long time ago with not much going on now? Somehow this ancient history is not much talked about in chemistry courses and books. So the chemists cannot blame me too much for what I say if it is wrong, it is their fault! :biggrin:

    So am I right or have I overlooked something when I say that in Nature, at least today and a very long time past, most chemistry is biochemistry?
    Last edited: Nov 9, 2008
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  3. Nov 9, 2008 #2


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    I admit that I have not read your post.

    Biochemistry is usually taken up by people who are more oriented towards biology ,
    biochemist's interpretations of chemical principles in biochemistry texts are somewhat distorted perspectives with respect to pure Chemistry.

    There are many chemists that have work that contribute to biochemistry - it is highly funded. There are chemists that have work that contribute to other fields however that do not have much to do with biochemistry. Most chemists do not obtain extensive training in biochemistry and are not knowledgeable in this field - in this sense your statement is inaccurate.
  4. Nov 9, 2008 #3


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    Why samples of lava from different volcanoes have different composition?

    Why pH of oceans is relatively stable?

    Why some minerals always occur together, while others never?

    Why concrete hardens?

    But to some extent you are right.
  5. Nov 9, 2008 #4


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    When most people think of chemistry, they think of organic chemistry, which of course is the chemistry of carbon. Obviously, this type of chemistry will have a strong connection to biology. In fact, a lot of current research into synthetic organic chemistry is driven by wanting to mimic biochemistry; chemists identify new molecules produced in nature (which may have important pharmaceutical or other applications), then try to develop new synthetic schemes to produce these molecules.

    However, there are other branches of chemistry that do explain many natural phenomena in nature, specifically, physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and nuclear chemistry. How does the sun work? Why do certain minerals/materials have certain colors? Why are some elements found in their elemental form in nature while other elements are almost never found in their elemental form? Why do graphite and diamond have such different properties? How do we explain the physical properties of gasses?

    Not all of chemistry is about undestanding reactions. In general, chemistry is about understanding how the structure of a molecule define the properties of that molecule, including but not limited to reactivity. For example, a lot of physical chemistry and most of biochemistry is concerned with understanding the intermolecular forces that govern interactions between particles (e.g. in protein folding).
  6. Nov 9, 2008 #5
    Actually, chemistry is prevalent everywhere around us, both organic and inorganic. The "problem" (actually it is a very good thing) is that the reactions occuring around us are uncatalzed and the changes that occur are taking place so slowly that to the untrained eye it would *seem* as if nothing is changing when in fact, everything is changing bit by bit very slowly. Like Geology (which is even slower), "big" changes are pretty much only noticeable when you compare things after a good deal of time has passed. Chemistry is not always this way, you can see very rapid changes that do take place when things are catalyzed such as when we have a forest fire or when you are cooking dinner on the stove or what not. Most physical changes are much faster on the other hand because they do not require as much of an energy input to see change (no breaking or forming of covalent bonds). But of course, using only physics to understand nature gives a person a very incomplete view...
  7. Nov 11, 2008 #6


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    It depends on what you mean by 'in Nature' and by 'most'... How do you define Nature? All that happens that is independent of Man? How do you define 'most'? Tons per year? Number of examples?

    No matter how you define it, you cannot say that most chemistry in Nature is biochemistry! We live on a thin crust and an even thinner portion of that crust is biologically relevant. But surely the chemistry most interesting to us has to be of a biochemical nature.

    Here is a list of the Nobel Laureate subjects for the Chemistry prize since 1901...

    Year Work
    1901 Chemical dynamics, osmotic pressure
    1902 Sugar and purine syntheses
    1903 Electrolytic theory of dissociation
    1904 Noble gases in air
    1905 Organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds, organic synthesis
    1906 Fluorine isolation and investigation
    1907 Biochemistry of cell-free fermentation
    1908 Chemistry of radioactive substances
    1909 Catalysis, chemical equilibria and rates of reaction
    1910 Chemistry of alicyclic compounds (fragrant essential oils).
    1911 Radium and polonium isolation and radiochemistry
    1912 Grignard chemistry and hydrogenation over finely divided metals
    1913 Coordination chemistry in transition metal complexes
    1914 Accurate atomic weight determinations
    1915 Plant pigments, especially chlorophyll
    1916 none
    1917 none
    1918 Synthesis of ammonia from it's elements
    1919 none
    1920 Thermochemistry, third law of thermodynamics
    1921 Chemistry of radioactive substances, origin and nature of isotopes
    1922 Mass spectrograph
    1923 Microanalysis of organic substances
    1924 none
    1925 Demonstration of the nature of colloid solutions
    1926 Disperse systems… colloids, proteins, macromolecules, ultracentrfuge.
    1927 Bile acids and related substances.
    1928 Sterols and vitamins
    1929 Sugar fermentation and enzymes
    1930 Porphyrins (haemin and chlorophyll)
    1931 Chemical high pressure methods
    1932 Surface chemistry
    1933 none
    1934 Discovery of deuterium
    1935 Synthesis of new radioactive elements
    1936 Molecular structure probed via dipole measurements and X-ray diffraction
    1937 Carotenoids, flavins, vitamins A, B2, C, carbohydrates
    1938 Carotenoids Vitamins
    1939 Sex hormones, polymethylenes and higher terpenes.
    1940 none
    1941 none
    1942 none
    1943 Use of isotopes as tracers in study of chemical processes
    1944 Fission of heavy nuclei
    1945 Agrucultural and nutrition chemistry.
    1946 Enzymatic crystallization, preparation. Virus proteins purified
    1947 Alkaloids
    1948 Electrophoresis and adsorption analysis (applied to serum proteins)
    1949 Low temperature chemical thermodynamics
    1950 Diene synthesis (Diels-Alder)
    1951 Transuranium elements
    1952 Partition chromatography, especially as it applies to natural products
    1953 Polymer chemistry
    1954 Nature of the chemical bond
    1955 Biologically important sulfur compounds, first synthesis of a polypeptide hormone
    1956 Mechanism of chemical reactions
    1957 Nucleotides and their co-enzymes
    1958 Structure of proteins, Insulin.
    1959 Polarographic methods of analysis
    1960 Carbon-14 as applied to radiocarbon dating
    1961 CO2 assimilation in plants
    1962 Structures of globular proteins.
    1963 Chemistry and technology of high polymers
    1964 X-ray techniques for structure determinations of biochemical substances
    1965 Organic synthesis, especially as it applies to antibiotics and natural substances.
    1966 MO theory, electronic structure of molecules by MO method
    1967 Extremely fast reactions
    1968 Non-equilibrium thermodynamics. "Fourth law of thermodynamics"
    1969 Concept of conformation and how it affects reactivity.
    1970 Discovery of sugar nucleotides and their role in biosynthesis of carbohydrates
    1971 Electronic structure and geometry of molecules and free radicals
    1972 Understanding of the connection between chemical structure of proteins and biological activity
    1973 Organometallic sandwich compounds
    1974 Theoretical and experimental physical chemistry of macromolecules
    1975 Stereochemistry of enzyme catalysis and organic molecules.
    1976 Borane chemistry
    1977 Non-equilibrium thermodynamics. Dissipative structures.
    1978 Chemiosmotic theory
    1979 Boron and Phosphorous compounds in reagents for organic synthesis. Wittig reaction.
    1980 Nucleic acid chemistry and recombinant DNA
    1981 Theory of frontier orbitals in chemical structure and reactivity.
    1982 Crystallographic electron microscopy as it applies to nucleic acid-protein complexes
    1983 Electron transfer reactions in metal complexes.
    1984 Merrifield synthesis on a solid substrate. Useful in peptide synthesis.
    1985 Crystal structure mathematical methodology.
    1986 Chemical dynamics of individual atoms and molecules
    1987 Host/Guest complexes and structure specific interactions
    1988 Determination of 3D structure of a photosynthetic reaction center.
    1989 Catalytic properties of RNA
    1990 Corey's theory and methodology of organic synthesis.
    1991 High resolution NMR spectroscopy
    1992 Contributions to the theory of electron transfer reactions
    1993 PCR method and site-directed mutagenesis and it's development for protein studies.
    1994 Carbocation chemistry (superacids)
    1995 Atmospheric chemistry (ozone decomposition)
    1996 Fullerenes
    1997 Ion-transporting enzyme Na+, K+-ATPase and enzymaticd mechanism of ATP synthesis.
    1998 Quantum chemistry, Density-Functional Theory.
    1999 Femtosecond spectroscopy for examination of transitional states of chemical reactions.
    2000 Conductive Polymers.
    2001 Chiral catalysis in hydrogenation and oxidation.
    2002 Soft desorption ionization of biological macromolecules and NMR spectroscopy for determination of 3D structure of biological macromolecules.
    2003 Water and ion channels in cell membranes.
    2004 Ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation
    2005 Metathesis methods in organic synthesis
    2006 Molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription
    2007 Chemical processes on solid surfaces.
    2008 Green fluorescent protein

    In the last 10 years (1999-2008), half of the Chemistry prizes went to what most would consider biochemistry. In the 10 years preceeding that (1989-1998), 3 of 10; and in the ten years preceeding that, 3 of 10. Going back to the years 1967-1978 there are only 3 of 10 as well. You have to go back to the mid 20's through the 30's (6 of 15) to see as much biochemistry represented in the Nobel prize as is case today. Also the mid 50's through the mid 60's...
    Last edited: Nov 11, 2008
  8. Nov 17, 2008 #7
    Most chemistry in use in factories are actually physical chemistry. Try getting a biochemist to design a reactor... It's all physical baby :D

    And then we come to what really goes on in the most fundamental level in organic chemistry, it's physical chemistry and then it boils down to either quantum mechanics or quantum chemistry for the calculations.

    So, how about no? Most chemistry is just chemistry, not biology.
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