22nd IUBMB & 37th FEBS Congress, Sevilla 2012

Congresos de la SEBBM

Teaching on the emergence of biochemical functions

Juli Peretó

  • Universitat de València, Spain

Since 1997 I have been teaching chemical and biochemical evolution at the University of Valencia, a non-compulsory subject for undergraduates in Biology and Biochemistry. This has been an extraordinary opportunity to design a syllabus with an evolutionary approach to the fundamental concepts in biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics or cell biology. Although the importance of evolution in biochemical research is hardly obvious according to the contents of most of our textbooks, as biochemists we must assume the famous slogan of Dobzhansky («Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution») and introduce the evolutionary perspective in our teaching as the best way to understand why biological things are the way they are at the molecular level. Thus we can confront historical contingency and chemical determinism in the configuration of biochemical functions. I will consider several topics as discussed with my students, such as (i) the origin of natural selection, did it occur before or after template chemistry became established?; (ii) extant cells show autocatalytic phenomena –self-maintained biochemical networks, self-reproductive membranes and self-replicative nucleic acids– but how autocatalysis did emerge during the origin of life?; (iii) enzymatic flexibility and promiscuity enable the evolvability of metabolic functions; (iv) metabolic networks and environments have coevolved through the history of our planet, as eloquently shown by the evolution of oxygen metabolism; and (v) new metabolic phenotypes may evolve through symbiotic associations. I will also discuss within the evolutionary framework how debatable are some classical concepts, such as those of enzyme specificity, essential amino acid or Needham’s rules on nitrogen excretion.


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