Monday, October 14, 2013

Fundamental Concepts in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology


Better Biochemistry
The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) advocates for a concept-driven approach to teaching biochemistry and molecular biology. It set up a number of working groups to flesh out this approach. The results have been published in a series of papers in the latest issue of BAMBED (Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education). The first paper (Mattos et al. 2013) discussed the strategy [see ASBMB Promotes Concept Driven Teaching Strategies in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology].

The second paper, by Tansey, et al., is the most important paper. It covers the results of a two-year study to define and describe the fundamental concepts that must be taught. The authors begin by explaining why it's important to agree on a core set of fundamental concepts.
First, as educators we are increasingly being held responsible for what we teach, both inside our own institutions and from outside bodies. Biochemistry and molecular biology programs are a diverse group with some heavily grounded in chemistry while others have more of a biological foundation. Expectations differ from campus to campus and accrediting body to accrediting body. Before we can begin to assess what students know, there needs to be general consensus as to what we expect from them. Furthermore, as biochemistry and molecular biology are complex and constantly evolving topics, a taxonomy of concepts and skills will be useful to anyone attempting assessment or developing new assessment tools. This consensus list of foundational concepts attempts to organize and provide examples in a distilled and streamlined manner to facilitate the development of new assessment methods in line with the new ASBMB undergraduate degree accreditation program.
I strongly support the idea of concept-driven teaching and I strongly support the idea that we should all try to reach agreement on the fundamental concepts.

I know several of the authors of this report and they believe that a series of meetings and workshops attended by traditional biochemistry teachers is the best way to decide on the fundamental concepts. Where I differ is that I think many of my fellow teachers do not understand the basic concepts. If I'm right, then a consensus view derived from such meetings will not necessarily be a correct view.

I also strongly disagree with the idea of accreditation by ASBMB. This will always be a problem but it will be even more of a problem if accreditation is based on flawed concepts.
Second, we need some measure that we are teaching material that is current, pertinent, and useful to our students. It does our students no good if we are supplying them with course content that prepares them for careers of the past. A consensus list of foundational concepts is one way that we can begin to outline and organize what our students know. From that, other pieces of the educational puzzle (e.g., how we assess what they know and how we helped deliver and build that knowledge) begin to fall into place.
I believe that the fundamental concepts are stable and that they have been around for decades. Furthermore, I believe that they will still be fundamental concepts 50 years from now. It makes me nervous to think that the idea of fundamental concepts is related to material that is "current, pertinent, and useful to our students." If you are going to teach biochemistry by emphasizing fundamental concepts then it's very likely that you will NOT be focusing on the latest headlines. I hope that's not what the authors meant.
Third, we currently lack the ability to compare between programs in any sort of quantitative manner. It would be useful to have a simple metric to provide to graduate programs or companies to demonstrate that our students are well prepared and can meet the challenges set out for them. Finally, we feel strongly that biochemical educators should be the ones driving this change, instead of waiting for other outside groups to proscribe to us what our courses and majors should contain.
I strongly agree that biochemistry instructors should not allow outside groups such as the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) to proscribe to us what we should teach [see Better Biochemistry: Teaching to the MCAT?].

However, I'm also skeptical of allowing ASBMB to proscribe what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in a biochemistry/molecular biology course. I suppose I could be convinced if I have confidence that ASBMB knows what it's talking about. We're about to find out if that confidence is justified.
We need simple, accurate means of assessment that parallel our classroom and laboratory practices and indicate where we are and where we are not making themark. However, before we do this we must recognize that defining concepts is necessary before any attempts are made to develop assessment tools. We must first define what we want to assess before we decide how to assess it.
It's decision time. After two years of study we are about to find out whether ASBMB is capable of defining fundamental core concepts in biochemistry and molecular biology.
This project seeks to define the core concepts of biochemistry and molecular biology. These are the most fundamental underpinnings of the field that all undergraduate biochemistryand molecular biology majors should be equipped with when they graduate.

We have assembled a list of five broader core concepts common to all of biochemistry and molecular biology. These are evolution, matter and energy transformation, homeostasis, biological information, and macromolecular structure and function. The concepts we chose were based on the Vision and Change NSF report, the core concepts learning objectives list from the ASBMB accreditation report, the input of faculty members from around the country at regional meetings, and our personal experiences. The list is not meant to be proscriptive or limiting, but is rather meant to categorize and define concepts and individual topics for pedagogical purposes.
I'm thrilled to see evolution at the top of the list. It wasn't there at the beginning of this process and that's why many of us asked that evolution be specifically mentioned. I'm happy with three of the other categories but I'm puzzled by "homeostasis." I don't even use this word in my biochemistry textbook.
From these core concepts we developed a list of four or five recurring themes for each concept (memes if you will) that can be found repeated throughout all of biochemistry. These illustrate, broaden, and define the concept in a somewhat more detailed fashion but are still lacking in terms of a specific example. Finally, we developed a list of more detailed statements that related to the themes and concepts. These statements are more detailed but still general enough to allow significant leeway for future groups or individual faculty members to develop more specific learning objectives and assessment tools.
Let's look at the specifics, beginning with evolution. Will we all agree that the ASBMB committee has correctly identified the fundamental concepts?

Mattos, C., Johnson, M., White, H., Sears, D., Bailey, C. and Bell, E. (2013) Introduction: Promoting concept driven teaching strategies in biochemistry and molecular biology. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ. 41:287–288. [doi: 10.1002/bmb.20726]

Tansey, J.T., Baird, T., Cox, M.M., Fox, K.M., Knight, J., Sears, D. and Bell, E. (2013) Foundational concepts and underlying theories for majors in “biochemistry and molecular biology”. Biochem. Mol. Biol. Educ., 41:289–296. [doi: 10.1002/bmb.20727]


  1. I'm surprised that you're puzzled about "homeostasis" - it is certainly a key concept throughout all of biology. I'm sure you use one of its near-synonyms in your book ("regulation" perhaps?).

    What I see as missing is the concept of stochastic variation in dynamic processes (e.g. genetic drift). This is arguably included under "evolution", "matter and energy transformation" and "homeostasis" (all of which refer to dynamic processes which have stochastic components), but we don't know whether the stochastic components will be emphasized or even acknowledged.

    1. I've never thought of "homeostasis" as a key concept of biology. I do think regulation is important but that's not the same thing.

      Here's how the ASBMB teams refers to homeostasis. Do you agree?

      Biological homeostasis is largely maintained by systems of irreversible nonequilibrium steady-state reactions, although rapid equilibrium reactions (such as occur with cell buffers, including pH buffers and oxygen buffers like Hb and Mb) contribute to homeostasis. While all biochemical reactions are “reversible” (some more so than others on a temporal scale) and tend toward equilibrium, the overall chemical system in a cell is maintained in a state with nonequilibrium steady state concentrations of reactants and products.

      I believe that most biochemical reactions are near equilibrium reactions with steady state concentrations that are close to the equilibrium concentrations. Some reactions are controlled by regulated enzymes so they don't reach equilibrium.

      Individual cells of a bacterial species can survive under drastically different conditions depending on the environment. These conditions results in widely different concentrations of metabolites and different enzymes whose genes have been activated or repressed. Referring to this as "homeostasis" seems to miss the point.

    2. It's not my field of expertise, so I have no particular preference for which word is used or which aspects of the idea are emphasized - certainly those things matter, but I'll leave it to biochemists to debate. My point is just that _something_ related to regulation should be on the list, so removing it would be a mistake.