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What is Chemical Biology? No… seriously.

Disclaimer: I am not an expert. In fact, this series of blog posts is as informative  to me as it is to you. Probably even more so. My views and the views of people interviewed for this blog do not, in fact, reflect what exactly “chemical biology” is, but only a snapshot.  Please direct any comments or suggestions below!

NOT Chemical Biology

Maybe one day, research like this could be chemical biology

The next several months are pretty big for me.  Soon, I’ll be taking the GRE and deciding where to go for my PhD, but I honestly have no idea where I want to study.  Because of my current research and classes I’ve taken, I know that Chemical Biology is the field for me.  The only issue is, when asked recently by friends, family, and random strangers  what Chemical Biology really is, I’m kind of at a loss.

For me, Chemical Biology means probing biological systems with chemical agents.  Recently, I’ve had a chance to talk to a couple PhD candidates (including our very own  Christine Herman) in Chemical Biology, and they all had varied definitions.  Christine’s and my research could not be more different; she does research in bioassays, and I do a lot of work in peptidomimetics and drug discovery.  Her research is in the analytical department, and mine in the organic.  It surprised me to learn that she classified herself as a chemical biologist as well.  This led me to a couple conclusions:

Chemical Biology is less of a specific field but more of a classification encompassing a wide range of different kinds of research.  Things that would have once been considered organic chemistry (such as what I do), analytical chemistry (what Christine does), or even physical chemistry (see some later posts!) are now under the great big umbrella that is Chemical Biology.  So, what’s a young blogger to do?  Over the next several months, I’m going to examine different areas of research in Chemical Biology, one by one.  I’m planning on getting in touch with some of the leaders in field.  Hopefully, this will be fun for everyone, and help me decide where I want to do my PhD.

Next Monday tune in for a subject near and dear to my heart:  peptidomimetics!  Any suggestions on who to talk to?  Post below!


  • Apr 25th 201118:04
    by Carmen Drahl

    It’d probably be interesting to compare how different chemical biology journals seem to define the discipline based on what they publish. Good luck on the intellectual journey..

  • Apr 25th 201118:04
    by Curious Wavefunction

    That’s a nice question. I think one of the things that distinguishes chemical biology from say biochemistry as traditionally defined, is that chemical biologists usually use synthetic organic molecules to interrogate biomolecular structure and function. Biochemists have traditionally been more interested in studying biochemical systems through physical and genetic manipulation. But most people we know who are the forefront of chemical biology (Schreiber, Schultz, Shokat, Bertozzi, Liu etc.) seem to come from a chemistry background and are adept at using synthetic molecules to study biological systems.

  • Apr 26th 201102:04
    by David Kroll

    Dare I say that the discipline of pharmacology was the original “chemical biology.”

    Remember that father of American pharmacology, John Jacob Abel, founded the Journal of Biological Chemistry. In the day, much of what was in there could be considered chemical biology under today’s definition.

    One might say that chemical biology is more akin to biochemical pharmacology than in vivo pharmacology but chemical biologists will test the outcomes of their biochemical dabblings in whole animal models.

    I’d add Brent Stockwell at Columbia (a Schreiber trainee) as a great example of a chemical biologist.

  • Apr 27th 201100:04
    by AJ

    Hi – Im a biochemistry undergraduate student and I have now concluded that Chemical Biology is the field for me (likewise as yours)! However, since my degree is more focused towards molecular biology than chemistry itself – how would I be able to get into this field, for instance a postgraduate oportunity that equip me with the required chemical knowledge! I would appreciate your help and will definitely keep track of this blog :)
    All the best.

  • Apr 27th 201119:04
    by Sidechain Bob

    Hi AJ! Great to hear that you’re interested in Chemical Biology. You should certainly keep checking out the blog over the next couple months. I’ll probably be posting along with each blog a review article or two to get you started on a subject in chemical biology.

    If you want some more chemical/synthetic experience, I would suggest either talking to a professor at your undergraduate university and doing some research, or applying for an REU program (see my previous post on where to find them!) to learn more about chemical research over the summer. You could also take some time off before grad school and work in a lab. Good luck, and let me know if you have any questions.

  • Apr 28th 201118:04
    by Mitch

    I do a lot of chemistry and biology but I would never call myself a chemical biologist. in vivo chemist perhaps. I don’t really work with cells or pathways, just whole animals.

  • May 1st 201118:05
    by iter

    I’m currently in high school, about to enter the first year of a physical science degree in the UK. There is an option to take the biological route in my course, however, and I’ve been seriously considering it!
    As for chemical biology, my starting point – although this requires quite a bit of background reading on my part before I can understand as much as I would like – is the Nature Chemical Biology 5th anniversary issue (see http://www.nature.com/nchembio/focus/past_present_future/index.html). It’s an article surveying developments in the field in the recent years, followed by a collection of essays by chemical biologists just starting up.

  • May 2nd 201120:05
    by Sidechain Bob

    Hi Iter!
    That’s a great issue, and I will certainly be drawing from it for ideas. They did a really excellent job in rounding up some cool, diverse research. Look for it in subsequent posts

  • Jul 27th 201114:07
    by Ian Ainslie

    Good reading. All the best with your trip into knowledge furtherment (?!)
    Maybe at this stage, you’ve got an update on your findings?

  • Aug 31st 201104:08
    by Tristan

    I agree with you 100% that (these days) “Chemical Biology means probing biological systems with chemical agents”. As opposed to biochemistry, which is the study of the chemistry that occurs naturally in living cells. Studying Biochemistry with synthetic probes (such as I do), by extension I guess would then be chemical biochemistry, but that just sounds silly.
    Shopping around for grad schools is something to look forward to; you get meet some of the smartest people in the world and they’re all trying to convince you to come to their school.
    Nature chembio is indeed a good journal, make sure to check out their newest issues too (monthly), to see what the various big names have been upto lately.
    I’m in the “Chemical Biology Graduate Program” at UC Berkeley, which is not a stand-alone program but rather something you apply to after being admitted into one of the affiliate departmental graduate programs (I’m in Chemistry; most CBGP students are Chemistry or MCB, but occasionally there is someone from Bioengineering or Chemical engineering). Really all it means (in addition to being in your departmental program) is that you get to do rotations, have a virtually limitless range of lab choices and get to interact with other people excited about chembio over sandwiches. Feel free to contact me if you have questions.

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