Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: How Life Works

Course No. 9572
Professor Kevin Ahern, PhD
Oregon State University
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Course No. 9572
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What Will You Learn?

  • Discover the handful of elements involved in biochemical reactions, the bonds they form, and the wide array of molecules that result.
  • Study the ways that cells regulate enzyme activity by directing the synthesis and breakdown of biomolecules.
  • Survey the fats that obsess us in our diets and body shapes, notably triglycerides in their saturated and unsaturated forms.
  • Discover how to eat in a way that minimizes harm and efficiently fixes the inevitable cellular damage from living.

Course Overview

One of the triumphs of modern science has been our ever-improving understanding of how life works—how chemical reactions at the cellular level account for respiration, digestion, reproduction, locomotion, and a host of other living processes. This exciting subject is biochemistry—and its allied field of molecular biology. In the past century, progress in these complementary disciplines has been astonishing, and a week rarely passes without major advances in medicine, physiology, genetics, nutrition, agriculture, or other areas, where biochemistry and molecular biology are shedding new light on life.

Anybody pursuing a career in a biology-based field—whether as a physician, pharmacist, or forester—must take biochemistry and molecular biology in college, usually after extensive preparation in biology and organic chemistry. But what about the rest of us? How do curious non-scientists get an accessible introduction to these fascinating ideas?

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: How Life Works is that much-needed introduction, in 36 information-packed half-hour lectures tailored to viewers with no more science background than high school chemistry. Using the innovative methods that have earned him a multitude of teaching awards, Professor Kevin Ahern of Oregon State University covers the essential topics of a first-semester college course in biochemistry and molecular biology. You plunge into the thick of amino acids, proteins, enzymes, genes, and much more, learning the intricate workings of living cells, while discovering thought-provoking connections between the microworld and your own life.

Not only do these sciences tell us what’s happening at the most basic levels of living systems, but they also shed light on things such as:

  • Fad diets: Nutrients such as vitamin B12 are so beneficial that it’s tempting to ingest them in excess. But the body’s metabolic pathways are so finely tuned that these fad diets are either pointless or harmful. Similarly, artificial sweeteners can disrupt the gut bacteria and end up worse in some ways than sugar.
  • Wonder drugs: Medicines such as aspirin and penicillin were used long before anyone knew how they worked. But we now understand they contain compounds that inhibit specific cellular enzymes. By deciphering the biochemistry of disease agents, scientists can design drugs specifically to target their vulnerabilities.
  • DNA storage: With its paired bases, the double helix molecule of DNA is a remarkably efficient digital-storage medium. Advances in molecular biology now make it possible to create a sequence of bases of any length to encode information, meaning that all of the world’s data could be stored in a couple of pounds of DNA.

Drawing on years of classroom experience and his three popular textbooks, Professor Ahern conducts a graphics-intensive tour in which you always know where you are, even as you navigate the complex pathways of glycolysis and the Krebs citric acid cycle—two of the major stages leading from food to energy. Each step in a biological process is highlighted with detailed graphics so that you never lose your way. It’s quite a trip!

Designed for anyone curious about how life works, this course will especially appeal to:

  • Self-learners eager to tackle the fundamental science of life;
  • Those wanting a deeper grasp of diet and disease;
  • News enthusiasts keen to follow the biotechnology revolution;
  • Students enrolled in biochemistry or molecular biology;
  • Health care professionals who want an up-to-date review; and
  • Science teachers wishing to see a true master at work.

Enlightening and Also Entertaining

Among Professor Ahern’s teaching strategies are his “metabolic melodies”—clever poems and songs that he composed to aid students in memorizing material. An example, featured in Lecture 26, covers the replication of DNA:

  • Bases, sugars, phosphate bonds
  • Double helix, on and on
  • Need to jumpstart DNAs?
  • Get the enzyme called primase
  • When it comes to leading strands
  • Polymerase III is in command…

…and so on, through the enumeration of enzymes that play a role in unwinding the double helix of DNA and synthesizing new strands. Dr. Ahern’s verses (some to the tune of well-known songs, such as When Johnny Comes Marching Home) embody the enthusiastic, whimsical style that makes Biochemistry and Molecular Biology both enlightening and entertaining. Yet this delightful course is surprisingly deep and each viewing can teach you something new.

Start Simple; Build from There

Noting that biochemistry deals chiefly with just six bonding elements (out of the more than 100 in the periodic table of elements), Professor Ahern starts the course by stressing the subject’s underlying simplicity. Water is also a simplifying feature, since its unique properties—and ubiquity—make life possible. The cellular structure of life is another organizing principle of great elegance. Expanding on these themes and the nature of chemical bonds, you see how only twenty amino acids form the building blocks of proteins, which are the basis of all living tissues. And the instructions for building proteins are in the genes that comprise DNA and its related molecule, RNA.

As you proceed through the course, complexity mounts in intriguing ways, but there are always surprising links to an astonishing array of questions such as:

  • How does caffeine wake us up? Caffeine blocks the binding of sleep-inducing adenosine to its receptors on neurons. Caffeine also triggers an increase in blood glucose, particularly first thing in the morning, providing the same lift as from a piece of candy. That’s why, except for taste, sugar is not needed in a cup of coffee or tea.
  • Why do people obsessively check their phones? Interacting with other people, in person or via the phone, is a social activity favored by evolution because of its survival advantage. Our brains encourage us in this pursuit by a jolt of the “feel-good” chemical dopamine. The same neural pathway is hijacked by drug addiction.
  • Why don’t elephants get cancer? Cancer in humans is promoted by inactivation of a protein called p53, which plays a role in repairing DNA damage. While humans have just one pair of p53 genes, elephants have a whopping 20 pairs, making it much less likely that their tumor-suppressing system will be knocked out.

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology is thoroughly up to date, reflecting the subject as it is taught in the classroom today. For example, the relationship between an enzyme and its substrate (the substance on which it acts) was long portrayed as like a key fitting into a lock; the two had to match precisely, like puzzle pieces. In fact, Dr. Ahern points out, the fit is more like a foot slipping into a shoe that is not quite broken in. The footwear stretches before a comfortable fit is achieved. Something comparable happens between an enzyme and it substrate; their shapes alter slightly before they tightly bind, which is the point at which the catalyzed reaction begins. Similarly, proteins were once conventionally thought to have relatively fixed 3-D structures. But numerous proteins have at least one region that is intrinsically disordered— a trait that allows them to bind to a wider variety of partners.

Discover the “Science of Us”

Biochemistry is a much younger science than astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology, which date back to ancient times. Only with the accidental synthesis of urea (the principal component of urine) in 1828 did scientists begin to accept that ordinary chemistry might be behind living processes. Thus the humble urea molecule was the first inkling that a science of bio-chemistry was even possible. The field of molecular biology is even younger, getting its most-celebrated boost with the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA in 1953—a breakthrough that was the key to the long-sought mechanism for transmission of genetic information. Together, biochemistry and molecular biology have sparked a scientific revolution every bit as momentous as Einstein’s relativity or Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe. In this case, the dramatic change in thinking is directed inward—to the qualities that make us who we are. This remarkable field of study, says Professor Ahern in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, is truly “the science of us.”

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Biochemistry Is the Science of Us
    Get started on the subject that Professor Ahern calls “the science of us”— biochemistry and its allied field molecular biology, which both tell us who we are. Discover the handful of elements involved in biochemical reactions; the bonds they form; and the wide array of molecules that result, including amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. Also, learn about the major types of living cells. x
  • 2
    Why Water Is Essential for Life
    Investigate why water is so singularly suited to life. Composed of two hydrogen atoms for each oxygen atom, water molecules have a polar charge due to the uneven arrangement of shared electrons. See how this simple feature allows water to dissolve sugars and salts, while leaving oils and fats untouched. Also learn what makes water solutions acidic or basic, and how this property is measured on the pH scale. x
  • 3
    Amino Acids: 20 Building Blocks of Life
    Take a tour through the 20 amino acids that link together in different combinations and sequences to build proteins. Besides water, proteins are the most abundant molecules in all known forms of life. Also the most diverse class of biological molecules, proteins make up everything from enzymes and hormones to antibodies and muscle cells—all based on an alphabet of 20 basic building blocks. x
  • 4
    From Peptide Bonds to Protein Structure
    Learn how peptide bonds join amino acids to form an almost unlimited number of protein types. The order of amino acids matters, but even more important are the shapes they form. Survey primary, secondary, tertiary, and quaternary protein structures, with examples—from silk (a fibrous protein with mostly secondary structure) to the intricately folded hemoglobin protein (a quaternary structure). x
  • 5
    Protein Folding, Misfolding, and Disorder
    Discover how proteins fold into complex shapes, often with the help of molecular chaperones. Then learn the deadly consequences of proteins that do not fold properly, leading to degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and prion diseases. Also look at intrinsically disordered proteins, which lack a fixed structure, permitting flexible interactions with other biomolecules. x
  • 6
    Hemoglobin Function Follows Structure
    Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen from lungs to tissues and then takes away carbon dioxide for exhalation. Learn how structure is the key to this complicated and vital function. Also see how variant forms of hemoglobin, such as fetal hemoglobin and the mutation behind sickle cell anemia, can have life-saving or fatal consequences—all depending on structure. x
  • 7
    Enzymes' Amazing Speed and Specificity
    Witness how structure and function are related in enzymes, which are a group of proteins that stimulate biochemical reactions to run at astonishing speed. One example is OMP decarboxylase, an enzyme that produces a crucial component of DNA in a blistering 0.02 second, versus the 78 million years that the reaction would normally take! Analyze the mechanisms behind these apparent superpowers. x
  • 8
    Enzyme Regulation in Cells
    How do cells control the tremendous power of enzymes? Study the ways that cells regulate enzyme activity by directing the synthesis and breakdown of biomolecules. One reason biochemists care so much about enzymes is that many medical conditions result from enzyme activity that is excessive or insufficient. Consider examples such as hemophilia, hypertension, and high cholesterol. x
  • 9
    Fatty Acids, Fats, and Other Lipids
    Lipids are a varied group of molecules that include fats, oils, waxes, steroids, hormones, and some vitamins. Survey the fats that obsess us in our diets and body shapes, notably triglycerides in their saturated and unsaturated forms. Then explore the role lipids play in energy storage and cell membrane structure, and cover the multitude of health benefits of the lipid vitamins: A, D, E, and K. x
  • 10
    Sugars: Glucose and the Carbohydrates
    Probe the biochemistry of sugars that provide us with instant energy, feed our brains, direct proteins to their destinations, and communicate the identity of our cells. On the other hand, when present in large quantities they can lead to Type 2 diabetes, and the wrong sugar markers on transfused blood cells can even kill us. x
  • 11
    ATP and Energy Transformations in Cells
    Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is the fuel that powers many processes in living cells. Every day we make and break down our own body weight in ATP. Focus on the chemical reactions behind this impressive energy conversion system, which is governed by the Gibbs free energy equation. These reactions, which can proceed either forward or backward, are among the most important in biochemistry. x
  • 12
    Breaking Down Sugars and Fatty Acids
    A metabolic pathway is a series of biochemical reactions, where the product of one serves as the substrate for the next. Biochemists compare these pathways to road maps that show the network of reactions leading from one chemical to the next. Follow the metabolic pathway called glycolysis that breaks up glucose and other sugars. Then trace the route for fatty acid oxidation. x
  • 13
    Metabolism Meets at the Citric Acid Cycle
    The products from the reactions in the previous lecture now enter the Krebs citric acid cycle. The outcome of these reactions, in turn, link to many other pathways, with the Krebs cycle serving as the hub directing the intricate traffic of metabolic intermediates. After decoding the Krebs cycle, use it to illuminate a deep mystery about cancer cells, which suggests new therapies for the disease. x
  • 14
    Energy Harvesting in Animals and Plants
    Thus far, your investigations have accounted for only part of the energy available from food. So where's all the ATP? In this lecture, see how ATP is produced in abundance in both animal and plant cells, largely via mitochondria (in animals and plants) and chloroplasts (in plants only). You also learn why we need oxygen to stay alive and how poisons such as cyanide do their deadly work. x
  • 15
    How Animals Make Carbs and Fats
    Take a tour of cell manufacturing, focusing on metabolic pathways that use energy to synthesize key molecules, including sugars, complex carbohydrates, fatty acids, and other lipids. Along the way, learn why alcohol and exercise don't mix, how our bodies create short- and long-term energy stores, and why some essential fatty acids can lead to health problems if their ratios are not optimal. x
  • 16
    Cholesterol, Membranes, Lipoproteins
    The word “cholesterol” evokes fear in anyone worried about coronary artery disease. But what is this ubiquitous lipid and how harmful is it? Examine the key steps in cholesterol synthesis, learn about its important role in membranes, and discover where LDLs (“bad” cholesterol) and HDLs (“good”) come from. It isn’t cholesterol alone that is plugging arteries in atherosclerosis. x
  • 17
    Metabolic Control during Exercise and Rest
    See how cells manage complex and interconnected metabolic pathways, especially in response to exercise and a sedentary lifestyle. Then discover the secret of warm-blooded animals and what newborn babies have in common with hibernating grizzly bears—with lessons for combatting obesity. Also, learn about a drug from the 1930s that helped people burn fat in their sleep—as it killed them. x
  • 18
    How Plants Make Carbs and Other Metabolites
    Study how plants use sunlight and reduction reactions to build carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water. This synthesis of food from air and water occurs in a series of reactions called the Calvin cycle. While humans exploit plants for food and fiber, we also utilize a multitude of other plant molecules called secondary metabolites. These include flavors, dyes, caffeine, and even catnip. x
  • 19
    Recycling Nitrogen: Amino Acids, Nucleotides
    Nitrogen is a key component of amino acids, DNA, and RNA, yet animal and plant cells are unable to extract free nitrogen from air. See how bacteria come to the rescue. Then follow the flow of nitrogen from bacteria to plants to us. Also look at strategies for reducing our reliance on environmentally unsound nitrogen fertilizers by exploiting the secret of 16-feet-tall corn plants found in Mexico. x
  • 20
    Eating, Antioxidants, and the Microbiome
    Discover how to eat in a way that minimizes harm and efficiently fixes the inevitable damage from living. Learn that certain cooking methods can increase the formation of harmful compounds. And substances such as antioxidants found in some foods can reduce the impact of damaging chemical reactions within cells. Also cover recent findings about gut bacteria that have changed our views about diet. x
  • 21
    Hormones, Stress, and Cell Division
    Cellular communication depends on specific molecular interactions, where the message and the receiver are biomolecules. Follow this process for signaling molecules such as the hormones epinephrine, adrenalin, and epidermal growth factor, which stimulates cells to divide. Cellular signaling is like the children's game called telephone, except the message is usually conveyed accurately! x
  • 22
    Neurotransmitters, the Brain, and Addiction
    When you touch a hot stove, you recoil instantly. How do nerve cells process information so quickly? Trace nerve impulses—which involve electrical signals and neurotransmitters—as they pass from neuron to neuron, and from neuron to muscle cells. Study molecules that block nerve transmissions, such as snake venom and Botox treatments, and look at the role of dopamine in addiction behaviors. x
  • 23
    The Biochemistry of Our Senses
    Most of the reactions you have studied so far occur outside everyday awareness. Now investigate the most important biochemical signals that we habitually notice: the molecular reactions that give rise to the five senses. Analyze the sensory origins of colors, sounds, tastes, smells, and touch, mapping them through the nervous system. Observe how the senses are “tuned” to enhance our survival. x
  • 24
    From Biochemistry to Molecular Biology
    Trace the pathways of two widely ingested molecules: caffeine and fructose. Caffeine fools the body—usually harmlessly—into increasing glucose in the blood, while too much fructose can lead to unhealthy accumulation of fat in the liver. Then focus on two topics that link with the upcoming molecular biology segment of the course: androgen insensitivity and the molecular mechanisms of aging. x
  • 25
    DNA and RNA: Information in Structure
    Advance into the last third of the course, where you cover molecular biology, which deals with the biochemistry of reproduction. Zero in on DNA and how its double-helix structure relates to its function. Then look at the single-stranded RNA molecule, which is a central link in the process, “DNA makes RNA makes protein.” Also consider how viruses flourish with very little DNA or RNA. x
  • 26
    DNA Replication in Bacteria; PCR in the Lab
    Focus on DNA's ability to replicate by matching complementary base pairs to separated strands of the helix. Several specialized enzymes are involved, as well as temporary segments of RNA. Explore this process in bacteria. Then investigate the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a Nobel Prize-winning technique for copying DNA segments in the lab, which has sparked a biotechnology revolution. x
  • 27
    Chromosome Replication, Telomeres, Aging
    Examine the cell cycle of eukaryotic cells like our own and the cycle's effect on DNA replication. Discover that a quirk in the copying of linear DNA leads to shrinking of chromosomes as cells age, a problem reversed in egg and sperm cells by the telomerase enzyme. For this reason, telomerase might appear to be the secret to immortality except its unregulated presence in cells can lead to cancer. x
  • 28
    DNA Mismatch and Excision Repair
    Cells go to great lengths to prevent mutations. Luckily, these measures are not quite perfect, since nature relies on mutations to drive evolution. Study the methods that cells use to minimize alterations to their DNA. Find that DNA repair can interfere with cancer treatment, when the malignant cells survive medical therapy by repairing their DNA faster than the treatment can halt the repair. x
  • 29
    DNA Recombination, Gene Editing, CRISPR
    Delve deeper into DNA replication, learning that a process called genetic recombination assures that no two individuals will have the same DNA, unless they are twins derived from a single fertilized egg. Trace the new technologies that have arisen from our understanding of recombination and repair of DNA, notably CRISPR, which permits precise alteration of gene sequences. x
  • 30
    Transcribing DNA to RNA
    RNA is more than simply a copy of the DNA blueprint. Focus on the synthesis of RNA, covering how it differs from DNA replication. Also learn how human cells shuffle their genetic code to make about 100,000 different proteins using fewer than 30,000 coding sequences. Finally, see how knowledge of transcription occurring after death helps forensic scientists establish the time of death accurately. x
  • 31
    Translating RNA into Proteins
    Learn how cells solve the problem of reading information in messenger RNA and using it to direct protein synthesis. Focus on how different parts of the translation apparatus work together through sequence-specific interactions. Also discover how antibiotics kill bacteria and what makes the bioterrorism agent ricin so deadly. Close by investigating techniques to create biological drugs on demand. x
  • 32
    Protein-Synthesis Controls and Epigenetics
    Explore the controls that determine which genes are expressed at a given time, where in the body, and to what extent. Controls that act over and above the information in DNA are called epigenetic, and they can be passed on to offspring for a generation or two. Consider the case of honeybees, where a special food affects which genes are expressed, turning an ordinary larva into a queen bee. x
  • 33
    Human Genetic Disease and Gene Therapy
    Roughly 10,000 human diseases may be caused by mutations in single genes. Review the nature of genetic disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and Alzheimer’s. Also examine diseases that emerge from mutations in mitochondrial DNA. Finally, assess the challenges of using gene therapy and other technologies to treat genetic diseases—issues that raise technical, legal, and ethical problems. x
  • 34
    Cancer Mechanisms and Treatments
    Cover the ways that cells become cancerous, notably through a series of unfortunate mutations that lead to uncontrolled cell division. Genetics, environmental factors, infections, and lifestyle can also play a role. Learn why elephants don't get cancer. Then look at approaches to treating cancer, including use of agents that target rapidly dividing cells, whose side effects include hair loss. x
  • 35
    Biotechnology, Stem Cells, Synthetic Biology
    Molecular biology allows scientists and engineers to manipulate the recipes written in our genes. Spotlight some of the developments drawing on these techniques, including cloning, reprogramming cells, harnessing stem cells, and initiatives in “synthetic” biology, a new field that lets researchers create genomes that have never before existed, essentially fashioning entirely new life forms. x
  • 36
    Omics: Genomics, Proteomics, Transcriptomics
    Close by surveying exciting developments in molecular biology that are now unfolding. One area has been dubbed “omics,” based on the explosion of applications due to genomics, which is the decoding of human and other genomes. Thus, we now have “proteomics,” “transcriptomics,” and other subfields, all exploiting our knowledge of the DNA sequences responsible for specific biochemical pathways. x

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Your professor

Kevin Ahern

About Your Professor

Kevin Ahern, PhD
Oregon State University
Kevin Ahern is a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Oregon State University (OSU), where he also received his Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Biophysics. He has served on the OSU faculty in Biochemistry/Biophysics since the mid-1990s. Dr. Ahern is the coauthor of three popular biochemistry textbooks; two cowritten with his wife, Indira Rajagopal. In addition, he has published more than 700 articles. Professor Ahern has...
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Reviews

Biochemistry and Molecular Biology: How Life Works is rated 5.0 out of 5 by 5.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Biochemistry I bought this course and love it because i use it as a review for the course i took many years ago. I thing i am still waiting form is the free PDF study guide for this course. When will i reeive it. I also bougth another course in Cognative Rational Therapy and i have not received the free PDF study guide as well.
Date published: 2019-10-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fast-moving, Thorough Course This course is a good follow-up to courses on chemistry and biochemistry. The diagrams, animations and graphs are clear. I got in the habit of replaying parts of each lecture usually to find that I actually hadn't listened carefully enough on the first times through. This fast-paced course has lots of information and things to think through. It worked great streaming on my iPad.
Date published: 2019-10-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding Instructor Not only was there new information on amino acids since my last Human Physiology course, Dr. Keven Ahern is a terrific Instructor. His voice, poems, and mild sarcasm create a perfect learning atmosphere.
Date published: 2019-10-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun, fun, fun! It’s an +A science course. Very informative with all kinds of cool additional incites into applied biology. And poetry.
Date published: 2019-09-16
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