Biochemistry | The Canadian Encyclopedia



Biochemistry, encompasses the study of the chemical nature of living material and of the chemical transformations that occur within it.


Biochemistry, encompasses the study of the chemical nature of living material and of the chemical transformations that occur within it. Living things consist of many types of molecules (biomolecules) which, when isolated and examined, have no particular "living" characteristics, but behave in ordinary chemical ways. The properties of some of these molecules, especially large ones, are complex and subtle but are the result of the operation of chemical and physical laws. The special characteristics of living things arise from the ways in which these biomolecules are assembled within the cell and in the way they replicate. The methodology of biochemistry originated largely in PHYSICS, CHEMISTRY, IMMUNOLOGY and GENETICS.


Biochemistry began to emerge in Canada and the world during the last decades of the 19th century. Topics in early biochemistry were usually taught in medical schools by chemists. For example, a course in clinical and physiological chemistry was established by R.F. Ruttan and William OSLER at McGill in 1883. The department of biochemistry organized at the University of Toronto under Archibald B. MACALLUM was the first in the country and the second in the British Empire. Maud L. Menten, a student of Macallum's, worked with the German biochemist Leonor Michaelis to clarify the kinetics of enzyme reactions; the basic equation still widely used in enzyme kinetics is called the Michaelis-Menten equation.

University-based Research

During the first 3 decades of the 20th century, biochemistry research was conducted primarily at the universities. In this early period, courses in biochemistry were established at the following universities: Manitoba, 1909 (dept, 1923); Montréal, 1911 (dept, 1951); Queen's, 1914 (dept, 1937); Alberta, 1915 (dept, 1922); Saskatchewan, 1916 (dept, 1946); Western Ontario, 1921; Dalhousie, 1924; British Columbia, 1927 (dept, 1950); Laval, 1928 (dept, 1940). Most Canadian universities now offer courses in biochemistry, through faculties of medicine, science and agriculture. In addition, many of the agricultural colleges offer plant biochemistry programs.

In the formative years of biochemistry as a discipline, Canadian researchers did excellent basic research in all areas of biochemistry, from studies of the proteins in cereal grains to studies of substances that inhibit neural (eg, brain) responses. Medical biochemists made significant contributions in the study of hormones (endocrinology), blood fractions and the metabolism of chemical elements (eg, zinc and sulphur) and proteins.

The outstanding early biochemical event in Canada was the first successful extraction from pancreas tissue of INSULIN and its application to the alleviation of diabetes. F.G. BANTING, C.H. BEST and J.J.R. MACLEOD were involved in the discovery, for which Banting and Macleod received a Nobel Prize in 1923. Their colleague J.B. COLLIP was largely responsible for the purification procedures which made possible the use of insulin on human patients, and was later credited for the discovery of parathyroid hormone at the University of Alberta.

Other Canadian research with direct application to medical practice included early studies in toxemias and nausea in pregnancy by V.J. HARDING (McGill, University of Toronto), which led to the use of glucose therapy; research into the production of glandular extracts by E.W. McHenry (Connaught Laboratories, University of Toronto), which led to a procedure for preparing active liver fractions for oral (later intramuscular injection) use in pernicious anemia; studies in steroids by J.S. Browne and Eleanor Venning (McGill) and in protein metabolism in shock victims by Browne.

More recent important advances in biochemistry arising from university-based research include: the development of site-directed mutagenesis methods by Michael SMITH (UBC), for which he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry; development of renowned research on protein structure and function (University of Alberta), including pioneering protein crystallographic and nuclear magnetic resonance approaches; joint discovery of calmodulin, an important regulator of cellular function by J. Wang (University of Manitoba, University of Calgary); discovery and delineation of role of calcium binding proteins by D. MacLennan and colleagues (University of Toronto).

Institute-based Research

Through the 1980s in particular, biochemical research has mushroomed in research institutes associated with hospitals in certain medical centres. Notable among these are the Clinical Research Institute, the Montreal Neurological Institute and other hospital institutes in Montréal; the Research Institute, Hospital for Sick Children, and the Samuel Lunenfeld Institute and Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto. Important biochemical advances in these institutes include research on the synthesis of peptide hormones (M. Chrétien), the discovery of the cystic fibrosis gene (L. Tsui) and description of components responsible for cellular signal transduction (T. Pawson).

Federal Research Institutions

Beginning in the late 1930s, biochemists working at federal research institutions have made substantial contributions to biochemical knowledge, many of which have had immediate, practical effects. Biochemistry research was first undertaken at the NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA after the establishment of biochemical laboratory facilities in 1932.

Initially, the NRC's research was very practically oriented, dealing, for example, with the processing and preservation of food, the effect of hormones on wheat and, later, the preservation of human blood fractions. Later research dealt with more diverse subjects and the early food-processing orientation became of minor importance. More recently, research has also involved biochemical processes in micro-organisms (eg, relating to lipoproteins, ribosome structure). the NRC has established its Biotechnology Research Institute in Montréal.

Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd has facilities for biochemical research into the effects of radiation. Health and Welfare Canada maintains extensive facilities across the country to conduct the analyses necessary for enforcement of the Food and Drugs Act. Natural Resources Canada (eg, forestry) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada have biochemical laboratories.

Agriculture Canada has been responsible for much significant research in various areas, including the protein content of grains and the means of enhancing protein content, and the baking properties dependent upon it; the metabolism of plant toxins; pathogenic fungi; fatty acids in oilseeds; synthesis of hormones in animal species; and animal disease.

Industry-based Research

Although biochemical research and development in Canadian industry has not been strong historically, several factors have contributed to an upsurge in activity. Changes to drug patent legislation have resulted in renewed research in pharmaceutical development in Canada, with Merck-Frosst, for example, making a major commitment to research in their Montréal facilities. AVENTIS PASTEUR LTD has a long history of research and development in the area of protein hormones and vaccines.

Many new biotechnology companies have emerged in Canada, often as spin-off companies from university research. These include QuadraLogics (Vancouver), BioMira (Edmonton) and Biochem Pharma (Montréal).

Biochemistry has important practical applications in the food and beverage industries; hence, many industries have quality control laboratories and some, notably Maple Leaf Foods and Labatt Brewing, also operate research laboratories.


Research in Canada is largely federally funded. Grants (primarily to individual researchers and to research groups) are co-ordinated principally by the MEDICAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF CANADA.


With the exception of the ROYAL SOCIETY OF CANADA, the first national society with substantial representation among biochemists was the Canadian Physiological Society (established 1934); the Canadian Biochemical Society (now the Canadian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology) was an offshoot of this association. In 1957 the Canadian Federation of Biological Sciences was established.

See also BIOLOGY.

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