What’s In a Name?

A few weeks back, I was sending tweets back and forth with Alan. It started when Alan had asked, in reference to a previous BenchFly blog post, whether it was better to focus on a specific research field, or to be a jack of all trades. I joked that I preferred to focus on what I liked to think of as “interdisciplinary research,” a professional (and slightly nerdy) way of portraying one’s self as a jack of all trades. This prompted Alan to say that as a Chemical Biologist, one could do just that.

I liked Alan’s answer. I’ve always been interested in the field of Chemical Biology. One of the main reasons it has captivated my interest is because, really, I have no idea what Chemical Biology is; but it seems to bundle together quite a bit of methodology and concepts! Certainly, I can go onto a generic site like Wikipedia and read their article on Chemical Biology. It appears to be a rich, fascinating field full of enzymology, proteomics, and protein phosphorylation.

Hang on a second though…

I’ve spent the past 7 years working on enzymology, proteomics, and protein phosphorylation. However, I’m not a Chemical Biologist. Rather, I’m a Biochemist. My undergraduate diploma even says so (that said, my graduate diploma simply says Chemistry).

Something else I’ve always found amusing about Chemical Biology is its very name; the way it is essentially an inversion of Biological Chemistry, the long-form version of Biochemistry.

With that, getting back to our Twitter-conversation, I asked Alan if he thought that there was a difference between Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry. He said that he didn’t feel there was- it was more splitting hairs than anything else. He did add, however, that there is a difference between Chemical Biology and Biochemistry.

Whoa! Back up two paragraphs there…

No difference between Chemical Biology and Biological Chemistry, but yes, a difference indeed between Chemical Biology and Biochemistry? Aren’t Biological Chemistry and Biochemistry one and the same? Is Biochemistry not simply a portmanteau of Biology and Chemistry? Biology & Chemistry… Biological Chemistry… Bio-Chemistry… BioChemistry… Biochemistry… are there any differences here?

If nothing else, it is a fun debate. Whether it is the proverbial splitting of hairs, or whether these are concrete, diametrically-opposed fields, weeks later I am still left to wonder whether there is a distinct difference between Biochemistry, Biological Chemistry, and Chemical Biology. Has science in the 21st century generated a complex Venn diagram of sub-fields? Ah, the good old days when the only three sciences I had to be concerned with were Biology, Chemistry and Physics.

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Do you think there is a difference between Biological Chemistry, Biochemistry and Chemical Biology?

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Chris is originally from Montreal, and defines himself (perhaps ominously) as a Comparative Biochemist and Physiologist. His educational and postdoctoral experiences have taken him from Montreal to Ottawa ON, State College PA, and finally back to Montreal’s biotech industry. In his spare time- as you would expect from a Canadian- Chris enjoys watching hockey and is a stalwart fan of the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. You can keep up to date with the latest from Chris on Twitter.

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What are your thoughts- can you bring any clarity to the debate?

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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. alan@benchfly

    wrote on May 9, 2011 at 10:14 am

    After all that- I actually voted for #2! I think the difference between Biochemistry and Chemical Biology is that Biochemistry studies the chemistry the body naturally performs; whereas Chemical Biology uses chemistry (often through inhibitor synthesis or "chemical probes") to perturb biological systems in order to understand or control them. Subtle, I know. Of course, there are probably many people doing "Chemical Biology" in Biochemistry departments and vise-versa. Where Biological Chemistry falls, I don't know.

    I also think there's a healthy dose of "trendiness" involved with the naming. A new name makes something feel new, fresh and exciting- even if it could fall under a preexisting label. So while there are some differences, I'm not sure they're big enough to warrant separation into three distinct departments in the same university.

    Just my two cents.

  2. Henry

    wrote on May 9, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Many biological chemistry programs ended up getting rolled into a larger Biological Sciences umbrella program. Now the lines are even more blurred between other disciplines not mentioned here (Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, Biophysics, etc.).

  3. Chris B

    wrote on May 10, 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Agree with Henry, I graduated in the UK with a degree in Biomolecular Sciences. Mix of different aspects of molecular biology, chemistry, biochemistry, as well as immunology and physiology. I don't believe it is so much about whether there is a divide or not, but how much of a degree of overlap and correlating knowledge exists between the fields – understanding key concepts in one area often requires a baseline knowledge level in several others.

  4. Alice Ura Kuma

    wrote on May 13, 2011 at 2:35 am

    I work as an Laboratory Technician, aspect in Molecular biology Techniques. More experiments in doing Research for Malaria in Madang Papua New Guinea.

  5. Becky

    wrote on June 8, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    I basically agree with Alan. Having started a journal called Chemistry & Biology (now published by Cell Press), I spent a lot of time thinking about this question. Broadly, biochemists are people who study the chemistry and chemical behavior of biological molecules, especially biological macromolecules. Chemical biologists use chemistry to manipulate and perturb biology and answer biological questions.

    For extra credit: what is the difference between chemical biology and bioorganic chemistry? This is an interesting one because, IMHO, there is a big difference in the spirit and center of the two fields, but at the same time there's a large overlap in what they actually do. You could do an experiment where the main goal is to build X (and incidentally show that it's bioactive), and it would be bioorganic chemistry; you could do the same experiment to use X to perturb a biological system (which requires you to find a way to make X) and it would be chemical biology.

    Choosing a new name for a field is partly about "selling" it, sure, but it's also about saying that you feel there's a new way to think about an old problem, and giving like-minded people a way to meet and recognize each other. New names always get over-hyped and over-used; people who aren't really thinking in the new way want to jump on the bandwagon, and someone's bound to start talking loudly about how infinitely better the new way is than the old way. But there's still (often) a real change in the way the new-name community approaches questions.

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