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What is a Biochemistry Laboratory?

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  • Written By: Helga George
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A biochemistry laboratory is an area in which a biochemist studies the chemical processes within living organisms. Traditional biochemistry examines the chemistry of reactions catalyzed by enzymes, but biochemical research has expanded to cover topics of signal transduction, transport within cells, and molecular interactions. One generally has to have at least an undergraduate degree in the sciences to work in a biochemistry lab. Jobs in the biotechnology industry typically pay better than academic positions.

All biochemistry labs will have the basic components of science research labs, such a pH meter, a balance for weighing out chemicals, a variety of buffers and other chemicals, and refrigerators and freezers for storing supplies. They will also have a special freezer kept at -94° F (-70° C) for the long-term storage of proteins and tissues. Such facilities will have centrifuges and access to an ultracentrifuge. An ice machine is generally essential for generating ice to keep enzymes and reagents chilled and stable. Virtually all biochemistry labs will have gel electrophoresis supplies for examining proteins, along with the equipment for running Western blots.

For biochemistry research, a spectrophotometer is frequently necessary to measure protein concentrations or enzyme reactions. Usually, a UV-Vis spectrophotometer will suffice, but some labs require a fluorescence spectrophotometer for more specialized applications. More highly specialized labs may have more specialized spectrophotometers.

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Other biochemistry labs may have more specialized equipment, like particular chromatography equipment. This type of technology separates molecules. For instance, the lab may have a high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) system to separate peptides or conduct enzyme assays on small molecules. Another type of instrument one might have is a gas chromatography (GC) system. This unit separates volatile compounds.

A protein biochemistry laboratory is likely to have a fast-pressure liquid chromatography (FPLC) system to purify large amounts of protein to study. It would have a variety of gel matrices, with differing chemical properties to use with the FPLC to separate the proteins. There would be glass columns of varying proportions to hold the matrices. Protein biochemistry laboratories generally have a cold room, so that proteins can be isolated and purified at cold temperatures to keep them stable.

Many biochemistry laboratories utilize the techniques of molecular biology to help with biochemical research. Such molecular biochemistry labs often combine many of the techniques of biochemistry, such as performing Western blots, with those of microbiology labs. The techniques of genetic engineering involve manipulating DNA or RNA in microorganisms, so sterile conditions are required. Such a lab would have a sterile hood that can be wiped down with ethanol and has a germicidal lamp. It blows sterile air across its work surface.

The lab would have agar, which forms a gel that the microorganisms grow on. There would be a variety of other of supplies for media, and antibiotics for growing up the genetically-altered microorganisms. It would have incubators and shakers that could be warmed up to grow bacteria or yeast. Also necessary is access to an autoclave, to sterilize the supplies for growth and RNA manipulation, and to destroy the recombinant material after the experiments are finished.

Additional items would be gel electrophoresis units for separating RNA and DNA. A molecular biochemistry laboratory would have access to a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine for carrying out PCR reactions. It would have a variety of restriction enzymes and various enzymes used in cloning and PCR work.

A medical biochemistry laboratory would have many of the items of other biochemistry labs, depending on its specialty. The difference would be in the source of the material for study. It would be more likely to utilize mammalian cell culture techniques or to obtain material from stem cell cultures. Recombinant human proteins have been of great value to medical biochemistry labs.

Many of these techniques are in great demand at biotechnology and academic research facilities. The techniques of molecular biology and PCR reactions are desirable job skills, as is a familiarity with mammalian cell cultures. A mastery of any of the chromatography units is also a plus when job hunting in biochemistry. Undergraduate students can take lab classes in these areas and, if possible, conduct research in a biochemistry lab, which is a good way to start mastering these skills.

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