The importance of defining core concepts in biochemistry and molecular biology education

This is a guest post from our colleagues at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Biochemistry and molecular biology (BMB) have emerged as a distinctive scientific discipline that deals with the chemistry of living organisms and life at the molecular level. BMB concepts and methods underlie discoveries in physiology, microbiology, immunology, medicine and biotechnology and have catapulted the integration of the biological sciences.

To define and consolidate BMB as a field, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), with support from the National Science Foundation, developed four concepts fundamental to the understanding and application of BMB ideas. They can be used as a guide to write learning goals, create course materials and assessment tools, and develop teaching strategies to promote undergraduate student engagement and learning.

The four core concepts and their underlying principles are summarized below:

Energy is required by and transformed in biological systems.

  • Biologically relevant forms of energy required for biosynthesis, generation of electrochemical gradients or mechanical work can be studied and comprehended in terms of the principles of thermodynamics.
  • Enzymes are catalysts that allow chemical reactions to proceed more rapidly following kinetic parameters.
  • Metabolic pathways proceed by coupling energy-consuming reactions with energetically favorable reactions. 

Macromolecular structure determines function and regulation.

  • Proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids are complex macromolecules.
  • The dynamic structures of macromolecules – which is governed by chemical and physical principles – enables their functions.
  • Macromolecules come together via chemical interactions to form larger-order structures.
  • The biological function of macromolecules is regulated by and responds to changes in the environment.
  • Macromolecular structure, function and dynamics can be observed, measured and analyzed using experimental and computational approaches.

Information flow and storage are dynamic and interactive.

  • An organism’s genome contains all of its genetic information and determines its characteristics.
  • The nucleotide sequence of a genome is organized into various elements that include coding and non-coding regions.
  • Coding regions contain three base codons that code for amino acids, which are transcribed to messenger RNA. Messenger RNA is processed and translated into proteins.
  • Non-coding regions include DNA sequences that mediate replication, regulate gene expression, stabilize chromosomes and are transcribed into functional non-coding RNAs.
  • Genetic information is transmitted from one generation to the next.
  • Cells have evolved mechanisms to maintain the integrity of the genome. 

Discovery requires quantitative skills and analytical reasoning abilities.

  • The process of science combines creativity, experimentation and data analysis.
  • Discovery depends on accessing and comprehending available information and communicating science.
  • Science is collaborative and must follow safe and ethical practices.

To understand the form and function of biomolecules within organisms and populations, BMB core competencies must be presented in the context of evolution and homeostasis:

Evolution.

  • Evolutionary processes explain genetic changes within a population over time.
  • Mechanisms that drive evolution include mutations, migrations, genetic drift and natural selection.
  • Epigenetic changes influence gene expression.
  • Cells can acquire new genetic material.

Homeostasis.

  • Organisms regulate their internal environment to ensure survival.
  • Complex networks and metabolic pathways exist to maintain homeostasis.
  • Cell–cell communication and exchange of materials with the surroundings facilitate homeostasis.  

The ASBMB recommends that undergraduate programs relate each element of their BMB curriculum to one or more of these core concepts at both the basic/intermediate and advanced levels. Through its accreditation initiative, the ASBMB recognizes bachelor’s degree programs that meet the curriculum guidelines established by the society, along with the required hours of experiential learning, the infrastructure to support teaching and research, and the faculty expertise to collectively promote excellence and innovation in national BMB education.

For a comprehensive list of core competencies and threshold concepts, visit https://www.asbmb.org/education/core-concept-teaching-strategies/foundational-concepts