Chemistry is important to biology. This is why, when you open an introductory biology textbook, early chapters discuss the relationship between chemistry and biology. Understanding atoms, compounds, and chemical reactions is central to how biology works. So, one common homework question is asking students to explain why chemistry is important to biology and give examples of the relationship between the two disciplines.
The Relationship Between Chemistry and Biology
Chemistry is a physical science, like physics. Meanwhile, biology is a life science. You can pick up a physics text and never encounter a biological concept. You can get pretty far into chemistry before you encounter biology, but eventually you’ll study organic chemistry, and biochemistry. A biology book, meanwhile, includes a periodic table and at least a general introduction to atoms, chemical formulas, and reactions. Often, a brief introduction to chemistry is one of the first topics in the study of biology.
This is because biology is the study of life and all living things consists of atoms and molecules. Specifically, life depends on carbon or organic chemistry. Proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) are all organic molecules. Sometimes the relationship between chemistry and biology isn’t immediately obvious. For example, if you look at an ecosystem and identify organisms in a food web, it might not seem like chemistry. But, the resources organisms compete for include nutrients, which are chemicals. Similarly, if you study the anatomy of a human, you don’t initially see the chemistry. You see organs, tissues, and cells. Only when you look more closely do you see neurotransmitters, ions, hormones, lipid bilayers, and other chemistry concepts.
Examples of the Importance of Chemistry in Biology
Here are some examples of the importance of chemistry in biology:
- Photosynthesis is the way plants make food (a molecule called glucose). It’s a set of chemical reactions that feeds not only plants, but also animals and fungi.
- Other processes in plants that rely on chemistry include leaf color change and fruit ripening. Knowing the chemistry of the processes helps explain and predict conditions relating to the seasons and crop production.
- Inheritance and genetics depends on deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA. The genes that code for traits direct cells to make and express proteins. So, you use chemistry when explaining how two tall plants can produce some tall and some short plants or why two people with brown eyes might have blue-eyed children.
- How bones build calcium, why teeth decay if your diet is high in sugar, and why proteins don’t dissolve in saliva are all matters of chemistry.
- Chemistry explains the action of medications, supplements, and toxins.
Do you have additional examples of the relationship between chemistry and biology? Feel free to leave a comment!
- Astbury, W.T. (1961). “Molecular Biology or Ultrastructural Biology?”. Nature. 190 (4781): 1124. doi:10.1038/1901124a0
- Ben-Menahem, Ari (2009). Historical Encyclopedia of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. Berlin: Springer. ISBN 978-3-540-68831-0.
- Fromm, Herbert J.; Hargrove, Mark (2012). Essentials of Biochemistry. Springer. ISBN 978-3-642-19623-2.
- Fruton, Joseph S. (1999). Proteins, Enzymes, Genes: The Interplay of Chemistry and Biology. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07608-8.
- Roberts, Keith; et al. (2002). Molecular Biology of the Cell (4th ed.). Routledge. ISBN 0-8153-3218-1.