Then and now: A look back at biochemistry in the 80s

In the 1980s a three-part series of videos was published by Portland Press on behalf of the Biochemical Society. ‘The Biochemical Basis of Biology’ video series aimed to present biochemical facts and concepts in a dynamic way to students in further and higher education.

To see how biochemistry knowledge and techniques have changed in the last 30 years, we asked members of the Biochemical Society to review these videos and to write a short text comparing them to where we are today.

Today Dr Helen Watson, from our Education Committee, looks at the first video Cell Structure and Energy Production, produced by E.M Evans and E.J Wood. Keep an eye out on our blog for commentaries on the next video – DNA and Protein Synthesis and Manipulating DNA – in the coming weeks.

Cell Structure and Energy Production

Guest blog by Dr Helen Watson, University of Exeter

This video shows some of the techniques that were used in biochemistry and cell biology to understand cell structure and the function of enzymes in animal and plant cells. As you will see, we have come a long way since this video was made (and not only in haircuts!).

Variations on most of the techniques shown in the video are still used in labs today. In the years since this video was made, big advances in technology have enabled biologists to work with computer controlled equipment rather than doing everything manually. You’ll notice there is no computer attached to the microscope in the video. In modern labs, electron microscopes (and most other microscopes) are attached to computers which enable us to focus images, capture images and build up 3D models of samples so we can better understand the structures inside cells. Techniques such as confocal microscopy and FRET have become common and help us to understand the ultrastructure of cells, including where proteins are located and which proteins interact with each other. The use of fluorescent proteins has been vital in helping us to work out where proteins are localised inside cells and how they move about and interact with each other.

Our knowledge of protein structure has informed our understanding of protein function. We now know the 3D structures of many of the enzymes mentioned in the oxidative phosphorylation pathway. X-ray crystallography and other structural techniques like NMR have told us a huge amount about how enzymes like these function and, in this case, make energy. In the video, oxidative phosphorylation appears as a ‘black box’. Now, thanks in part to structural studies, we know much more about the enzymes and which parts of the reaction they catalyse.

We now know the sequence of the human genome and genomes of many other organisms. Having the technology to quickly manipulate and sequence DNA has enabled biochemistry and cell biology to move at a rapid pace. We can now easily study proteins one at a time by manipulating the gene that codes for them and synthesising the protein in a test tube (in vitro). This has, to some extent, made it unnecessary to fractionate cells and look at organelles, although this is still done in some experiments.

It is interesting to see which techniques have changed and which have remained the same since this video was made. Much of the equipment here is now a lot more advanced. Our microscopes now have computers attached to them to help us focus, record and quantify images. However, lots of the machines and techniques here such as the centrifuges and cell fractionation are still used on a daily basis in biochemistry and cell biology labs today. This video highlights just how fast research and technology in biological sciences moves and what an exciting, dynamic and sometimes unpredictable field it is to work in.

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