WHAT IS 'Molecular Biology'

Molecular biology is the study of interaction among the macromolecules that form an organism's basic genetic profile.

BREAKING DOWN 'Molecular Biology'

Molecular Biology focuses on the interrelationships between molecular entities in the human cell. It draws upon elements of chemistry, and other areas of biology, especially genetics and biochemistry. The most common subjects of molecular biology are large, complex molecules known as macromolecules. Nucleic acids, proteins, lipids and carbohydrates are prominent examples of this group. Nucleic acids and proteins, in particular, are central to the study of molecular biology and the genetics of the human cell.

Molecular biology originated in the 1930s and developed alongside the study of human genetics. Warren Weaver, a researcher at the Rockefeller Institute in New York City, first coined the term in 1938.  In its early stages, molecular biologists focused on the relationship between genes and the two categories of macromolecules mentioned above: nucleic acids and proteins.

The History of Molecular Biology

The history of molecular biology can be thought of in two phases. The first involves the evolving understanding of the relationship between human genes and nucleic acids such as DNA and RNA and proteins. This process originated in the late 19th century with Friedrich Miescher’s identification of nuclein in 1869. Subsequent discoveries of nucleotides and, specifically, DNA and RNA led to hypothesizing on the structure of the DNA polymer. In 1927, Nikolai Koltsov suggested a large molecule made up of mirrored strands. Testing of this hypothesis came to fruition in the 1950s as James Watson and Francis Crick finalized their double-helix model of a DNA molecule. In a 1957 lecture, Crick described this structure, and the relationship it demonstrated between the nucleotides and proteins, as the central dogma of molecular biology.

The second phase of molecular biology’s development in the 20th century is the pursuit of genetic engineering and its applications beyond the laboratory. Genetic engineering refers to the deliberate manipulation of an organism’s genetic makeup. Developments in the field accelerated in the mid-1970s with the birth of the biotech industry. Herbert Boyer and Robert Swanson, founders of Genentech, were trailblazers in the commercialization of genetic modification (GM). One of their first commercial successes was the mass production of human insulin for treatment of diabetics. GM practices have flourished since then, but not without controversy. Activists have warned of the dangers of GM products and, in particular, the risks of engineering human DNA. Those concerns were reflected in the ratification of an international treaty on genetic modifications, the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, in 2000.

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