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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Science at Cambridge: Biochemistry

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    24 Mar

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

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     9D Alice Flint photoThe biochemistry of metabolismMy name is Alice and I am a 3rd year biochemist. Initially I came to Cambridge thinking I would specialise in chemistry as the less strong teaching of biology at my school had put me off the subject. However taking the Biology of Cells module as part of the Natural Sciences Tripos in first year renewed my interest in biology and persuaded me pursue it in future years. Choosing to study Natural Sciences allowed me to change my mind and develop my interests due to the array of options available. Biochemistry is concerned with the principles underlying biology at a cellular level such as genetic regulation, cellular signalling and metabolism which are all interlinked. When I tell people I study biochemistry quite often the response is ‘but isn’t it all memorising pathways, why would you want to do that?’ However this is very far from the truth, yes there are some metabolic and signalling pathways but biochemistry is more concerned with understanding the overarching concepts rather than memorising the minute details. I find that when you look at the regulation of cellular processes it is actually very coordinated and logical which I find quite elegant.

    My main interest is in metabolism. I am a sporty person so I find the changes that occur during exercise highly relevant however metabolism also has a central role in disease. For example cancer cells display anaerobic metabolism even in the presence of oxygen -the Warburg effect. This allows for detection of tumours by Positron Emission Tomography (PET) where a radioactive tracer, the glucose analogue FDG is taken up in greater amounts by tumours and can be imaged by a scanner.

    In 3rd year biochemists undertake a project in their second term. My project again looks at the links between metabolism and disease. Some organisms (plants, fungi, bacteria and protists) can undergo a pathway called the glyoxylate shunt which bypasses the carbon dioxide producing steps of the Krebs cycle allowing these organisms to grow on 2 carbon substrates e.g vinegar. An enzyme essential to this pathway, isocitrate lyase (ICL) has been shown to be necessary for the upregulation of the type III secretion apparatus-this is a needle like structure that allows bacteria to inject toxins into the host cells. My project is looking at the expression of ICL in different nutrient and temperature conditions and its possible regulatory molecules. As the glyoxylate shunt does not occur in humans enzymes involved in this pathway are possible new drug targets, making research into the pathway important in this time of increasing resistance to existing antibiotics. Carrying out a project allows you to develop key practical skills and introduces you to the lab environment. It has encouraged me to pursue a career in research and I will take further steps towards this next year by staying in Cambridge for a 4th year to do an MSci in biochemistry which will involve completing a bigger project over two terms and hopefully I will continue onto a PhD after.

    Alice Flint
    Undergraduate student