What is Chemical Biology?

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

What's the difference between chemical biology and biochemistry? Learn what chemical biology is, and how it may lead to future medical advances. Then see how much you've advanced by taking a quiz.

What is Chemical Biology?

Humans love to put things into categories. This is a mammal, and this is an amphibian. This is a metal, and this is a non-metal. This is a planet, and this is a dwarf planet. It makes us feel like the world is a bit more orderly - it helps us make sense of it. But not everything fits into neat boxes.

Science is the study of the natural world using experiments and systematic processes. But depending on what part of the natural world you're studying, you might be a biologist, a chemist, a physicist, a geologist, an astronomer, or many other things. But what happens when those sciences overlap?

Chemical biology is one field that exists in the overlap between biology and chemistry. It involves using the techniques, tools, and methods of chemistry to the study of biological systems.

Chemistry techniques can be useful in studying organisms.
Chemistry techniques can be useful in studying organisms

But it's important not to get chemical biology confused with biochemistry; they're quite different. Biochemists study the chemical side of biological organisms. They study the chemical reactions that happen inside organisms and the molecular make up of compounds found in organisms.

Chemical biology on the other hand involves stimulating biological systems using chemicals. For example, you might add a chemical or specially designed sample of molecules to a tissue or cell and see what impact it has. The goal is often to figure out more detail about how the interactions work. Chemical biology usually involves smaller molecules than biochemistry, which looks at large molecules like nucleic acids and proteins.

Examples of Chemical Biology

Examples and applications of chemical biology are often highly complex and technical and involve understanding how biological systems react to introduced chemicals on a tiny scale. But there are a few examples or applications of chemical biology that are easier to understand.

One such example is the potential use of stem cells to help humans regenerate. Stem-cell research involves a special kind of human cell that have the potential to cause the rapid production of many cells of any type in the body. The hope is that they could be used to regenerate damaged tissues, such as repairing injuries, regrowing organs, or even giving people their sight back. Chemical biology gives us a potential way to adjust or control stem cells by adding or removing compounds which will cause them to behave differently.

Potential Uses of Stem Cells
Potential Uses of Stem Cells

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