There are many challenges facing the human race and one of the most important is the problem of antimicrobial resistance i.e. pathogenic bacteria that are not killed by a range of antibiotics. This is not a new phenomenon, bacteria started to develop resistance within a few years of the first use of penicillin and this “arms race” between scientists and bacteria has continued ever since.
However, there are increasing signs that we are losing this war and that the rise of multi-drug resistant bacteria may have a great impact on modern medicine. Antimicrobial resistance is a good example of the type of research problem tackled by molecular bioscientists.
New antibiotics can be produced by altering the molecular structure of existing antibiotics. Novel ways to find natural antibiotics include isolating bacterial DNA from soil samples and looking for gene sequences that produce proteins that are likely to be involved in antibiotic synthesis. Clearly, expertise at the level of molecules i.e. DNA, RNA and proteins, underpins medical research.
The core areas of molecular biosciences are biochemistry, genetics and microbiology. For genetics, understanding many human diseases and developmental disorders depends on understanding changes in genes, caused by mutations.
Diagnosis of chromosomal disorders (e.g. Down Syndrome) depend on cytogenetics — looking down the microscope at a preparation of human chromosomes to see the affected chromosome — in the case of Down Syndrome this is an extra copy of chromosome 21.
So, molecular biosciences are mainly used in disease diagnosis and treatment — microbiology (microscopy and understanding of bacterial pathogens), genetics (chromosome structure, identification of gene mutations) and biochemistry (enzyme structure, DNA chemistry).
The other major output from molecular biosciences is biotechnology i.e. applying the principles of biochemistry, genetics and microbiology to industrial processes. Examples here include producing biofuels (ethanol, butanol, biodiesel) from bacteria, yeast and microalgae to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels for transportation.
The roles for molecular bioscientists in biofuel production include determination of the biochemical pathways within yeast, bacteria or microalgae and potentially using gene knockouts to inhibit pathways which compete with biofuel production (metabolic engineering).
Multi-gene editing using CRISPR-Cas9 is speeding up the process of gene knockouts and making the metabolic engineering of yeast and bacteria much more feasible. Knowledge of genetics, microbiology and biochemistry is required to produce a strain that efficiently synthesises biofuel.
Molecular studies have now dissected the apparatus of photosynthesis found in plant/algal organelles called chloroplasts so that one understands the role of individual proteins and pigments (light absorbing molecules) in the photosynthesis process.
Steps are now underway to produce solar fuels from artificial photosynthesis systems that are based on the natural proteins and pigments found in photosynthetic organisms. Very high resolution microscopy and highly detailed biochemistry and genetics approaches are used to examine the diversity of photosynthetic microorganisms.
Some of the most important photosynthetic microorganisms (plankton) in the oceans have only been recently characterised and our knowledge of the role of microorganisms in the oceans is incomplete. This is another key research area that will help us understand the effects of global warming on acidifying the oceans and potentially disrupting photosynthesis and the global CO2 cycle.
The great thing about the molecular biosciences is one can enter the subject area via an initial passion for biochemistry and then explore all the other possibilities available in genetics and microbiology. The key experimental techniques (gene cloning, genetic engineering, protein purification, gene sequencing) apply across the three disciplines of genetics, microbiology and biochemistry, so moving between the subject areas is relatively easy.
Career prospects are bright for graduates trained in molecular biosciences. There will be high demand for science and engineering jobs in the future and a huge number of jobs will be filled by molecular biologists. Graduating in molecular biosciences can lead to jobs in universities, research institutes, businesses and health services.
They can enter into the pharmaceutical industry and the growing biotechnology industry, food manufacturing or brewing and they can also find fulfilling careers in roles outside of bioscience, from IT and business management, teaching etc. There is every reason to think that the 21st century will be the golden age of biology.
The writer is senior lecturer, department of molecular biology and biotechnology, University of Sheffield, UK.