Origins Of And Development Of Biochemistry
Biochemistry draws strength from all of these disciplines but is also a distinct discipline, with its own identity. It is distinctive in its emphasis on the structures and relations of biomolecules, particularly enzymes and biological catalysis; on the elucidation of metabolic pathways and their control; and on the principle that life processes can, at least on the physical level, be understood through the laws of chemistry. It has its origins as a distinct field of study in the early nineteenth century, with the pioneering work of Friedrich Wöhler. Prior to Wöhler's time it was believed that the substance of living matter was somehow quantitatively different from that of nonliving matter and did not behave according to the known laws of physics and chemistry. In 1828 Wöhler showed that urea, a substance of biological origin excreted by humans and many animals as a product of nitrogen metabolism, could be synthesized in the laboratory from the inorganic compound ammonium cyanate. As Wöhler phrased it in a letter to a colleague, "I must tell you that I can prepare urea without requiring a kidney or an animal, either man or dog." This was a shocking statement at the time, for it breached the presumed barrier between the living and the nonliving. Later, in 1897, two German brothers, Eduard and Hans Buchner, found that extracts from broken and thoroughly dead cells from yeast, could nevertheless carry out the entire process of fermentation of sugar into ethanol. This discovery opened the door to analysis of biochemical reactions and processes in vitro (Latin "in glass"), meaning in the test tube rather than in vivo, in living matter. In succeeding decades many other metabolic reactions and reaction pathways were reproduced in vitro, allowing identification of reactants and products and of enzymes, or biological catalysts, that promoted each biochemical reaction.
Until 1926, the structures of enzymes (or "ferments") were thought to be far too complex to be described in chemical terms. But in 1926 J.B. Sumner showed that the protein urease, an enzyme from jack beans, could be crystallized like other organic compounds. Although proteins have large and complex structures, they are also organic compounds and their physical structures can be determined by chemical methods.