Biochemists study the chemistry of life. They investigate life's processes at the level of molecules, using their knowledge to identify and solve biological problems. They research and develop new products and processes to benefit a wide range of areas, including food processing, pharmaceuticals, health care and agriculture.
Biochemistry involves studying basic life processes, for example, the way that DNA is transferred between cells and can be manipulated to solve problems. Biochemists work with all types of organisms, from micro-organisms to plants and animals.
Biochemical techniques are very important to nearly all areas of biological research, so biochemists work in all areas of modern biology.
In industry, biochemists develop new products and monitor the production process, ensuring safety and quality. They work in a very wide range of industries, including food, pharmaceutical, brewing, biotechnology and agrochemical companies.
For example, biochemists in biotechnology companies have developed genetic techniques and applied them to making vital proteins and hormones such as insulin, a chemical which is lacking in people with diabetes.
Biochemists produce vaccines and antibodies, and investigate the way in which DNA can be manipulated to provide remedies for genetic disorders. Biochemists have also developed the use of DNA fingerprinting in forensic science.
At the start of pharmaceutical research projects, biochemists usually investigate how a disease develops and spreads. The results help to decide the biological properties and chemical structure that a drug should have.
Biochemists will also help to decide which form a drug should take as a medicine, for example, as a tablet, injection or lotion.
Working on a new drug involves routine testing, first on cells in a test tube or culture dish ('in vitro' testing) and then on animals and human volunteers ('in vivo').
Clinical biochemists usually work in hospitals, analysing body tissues and fluids to help with the diagnosis of disease.
Disease causes change in the complex biochemistry of the body, so biochemists can detect disease by analysing the concentration of substances in body fluids and tissues. For example, glucose levels increase in patients who have diabetes mellitus, and urea increases when people have kidney disease.
A typical general hospital will perform over a million tests a year, so clinical biochemists use highly sophisticated automated testing machines to test up to a thousand samples an hour (for example, of sodium, glucose and urea in the blood).
In contrast, identifying an unknown drug taken in an overdose may take days of more intricate, manual testing, using a range of technology and laboratory techniques.
Clinical biochemists are also likely to be involved in researching and developing new analytical techniques, often working with colleagues in industry or universities.
Biochemists in agricultural research and the agrochemical industry help to develop products such as pesticides and fertilisers.
They use their knowledge of genetic modification to develop pest-resistant crops, improve crop yields and increase the amount of time that foods will keep for.
Other biochemists monitor the environment, for example, tracing pollutants as they move through food chains.
Computing and bioinformatics
A number of biochemists are involved in bioinformatics. This is the application of information technology (such as the internet and databases) to biology.
For example, there are internet databases containing the sequence of the whole genome of different bacteria. Biochemists can use this information to analyse how similar one bacterium is to another.
Other specialist areas
Biochemists can also work in many other areas, including education, medical writing, journalism, marketing and sales.
Personal Qualities and Skills
- To be curious, and have an enquiring mind.
- The ability to think logically.
- A thorough, patient and methodical approach to your work.
- Good organisational skills to plan and carry out experiments.
- Practical laboratory skills.
- Observation skills, accuracy and attention to detail.
- Maths, statistics and computer skills.
- The ability to explain results clearly and concisely, including in written reports.
- Teamwork skills.
The process of ensuring that a chemical product is safe may involve tests on animals, so you need to be prepared to be involved in this.
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of biochemists
Major employers throughout the UK are companies in the brewing, food and drink and pharmaceutical industries.
Other opportunities are with universities, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council, the Natural Environment Research Council, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the NHS.
Entry routes and training
It's usual for biochemists to have a degree in biochemistry or a closely-related subject with a substantial biochemical content. It's important to read prospectuses carefully to check how much biochemistry is involved.
Single subject degrees in biochemistry are widely available. Universities often also combine biochemistry with subjects such as chemistry, genetics and biotechnology. Degrees in medical biochemistry are also available.
A number of sandwich degrees in biochemistry are available.
Some universities offer courses with a foundation year. This is an extra year for students who don't have the specified science A levels for entry.
A small number of universities offer integrated science degrees (ISciences), aiming to give graduates interdisciplinary skills and knowledge through a problem-based approach.
Because biochemistry is a research-based discipline, many graduates go on to take a postgraduate qualification, such as a specialist MSc, or undertake research towards an MPhil or PhD.
Entry requirements for degrees vary so it is important to check with individual universities.
It might be possible to work your way up from the position of laboratory technician. You would usually need to study part-time while employed as a technician to do this, for example, by day-release. Entrants with relevant science HNDs or foundation degrees usually begin in technician-level posts.
To join the NHS Scientist Training Programme (STP) as a clinical biochemist, you'll need at least a 2.1 in a relevant BSc (Hons) degree. For example, this could be in biochemistry, chemistry or another subject with substantial biochemistry content. A relevant postgraduate degree and/or research experience is desirable.