Molecular biology is the study of biology at a molecular level. The field overlaps with other areas of biology and chemistry, particularly genetics and biochemistry. Molecular biology chiefly concerns itself with understanding the interactions between the various systems of a cell, including the interactions between DNA, RNA and protein biosynthesis and learning how these interactions are regulated.
Writing in Nature, William Astbury described molecular biology as:
"... not so much a technique as an approach, an approach from the viewpoint of the so-called basic sciences with the leading idea of searching below the large-scale manifestations of classical biology for the corresponding molecular plan. It is concerned particularly with the forms of biological molecules and ..... is predominantly three-dimensional and structural - which does not mean, however, that it is merely a refinement of morphology - it must at the same time inquire into genesis and function." 
Relationship to other "molecular-scale" biological sciences
Researchers in molecular biology use specific techniques native to molecular biology (see Techniques section later in article), but increasingly combine these with techniques and ideas from genetics and biochemistry. There is not a defined line between these disciplines. Today the terms molecular biology and biochemistry are nearly interchangeable. The following figure is a schematic that depicts one possible view of the relationship between the fields:
- Biochemistry is the study of the chemical substances and vital processes occurring in living organisms. Biochemists focus heavily on the role, function, and structure of biomolecules. The study of the chemistry behind biological processes and the synthesis of biologically active molecules are examples of biochemistry.
- Genetics is the study of the effect of genetic differences on organisms. Often this can be inferred by the absence of a normal component (e.g. one gene). The study of "mutants" – organisms which lack one or more functional components with respect to the so-called "wild type" or normal phenotype. Genetic interactions such as epistasis can often confound simple interpretations of such "knock-out" studies.
- Molecular biology is the study of molecular underpinnings of the process of replication, transcription and translation of the genetic material. The central dogma of molecular biology where genetic material is transcribed into RNA and then translated into protein, despite being an oversimplified picture of molecular biology, still provides a good starting point for understanding the field. This picture, however, is undergoing revision in light of emerging novel roles for RNA.
Much of the work in molecular biology is quantitative, and recently much work has been done at the interface of molecular biology and computer science in bioinformatics and computational biology. As of the early 2000s, the study of gene structure and function, molecular genetics, has been amongst the most prominent sub-field of molecular biology.
Increasingly many other fields of biology focus on molecules, either directly studying their interactions in their own right such as in cell biology and developmental biology, or indirectly, where the techniques of molecular biology are used to infer historical attributes of populations or species, as in fields in evolutionary biology such as population genetics and phylogenetics. There is also a long tradition of studying biomolecules "from the ground up" in biophysics.
Techniques of molecular biology
Since the late 1950s and early 1960s, molecular biologists have learned to characterize, isolate, and manipulate the molecular components of cells and organisms. These components include DNA, the repository of genetic information; RNA, a close relative of DNA whose functions range from serving as a temporary working copy of DNA to actual structural and enzymatic functions as well as a functional and structural part of the translational apparatus; and proteins, the major structural and enzymatic type of molecule in cells.
One of the most basic techniques of molecular biology to study protein function is expression cloning. In this technique, DNA coding for a protein of interest is cloned (using PCR and/or restriction enzymes) into a plasmid (known as an expression vector). This plasmid may have special promoter elements to drive production of the protein of interest, and may also have antibiotic resistance markers to help follow the plasmid.
This plasmid can be inserted into either bacterial or animal cells. Introducing DNA into bacterial cells is called transformation, and can be completed with several methods, including electroporation, microinjection, passive uptake and conjugation. Introducing DNA into eukaryotic cells, such as animal cells, is called transfection. Several different transfection techniques are available, including calcium phosphate transfection, liposome transfection, and proprietary transfection reagents such as Fugene. DNA can also be introduced into cells using viruses or pathenogenic bacteria as carriers. In such cases, the technique is called viral/bacterial transduction, and the cells are said to be transduced.
In either case, DNA coding for a protein of interest is now inside a cell, and the protein can now be expressed. A variety of systems, such as inducible promoters and specific cell-signaling factors, are available to help express the protein of interest at high levels. Large quantities of a protein can then be extracted from the bacterial or eukaryotic cell. The protein can be tested for enzymatic activity under a variety of situations, the protein may be crystallized so its tertiary structure can be studied, or, in the pharmaceutical industry, the activity of new drugs against the protein can be studied.
Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
The polymerase chain reaction is an extremely versatile technique for copying DNA. In brief, PCR allows a single DNA sequence to be copied (millions of times), or altered in predetermined ways. For example, PCR can be used to introduce restriction enzyme sites, or to mutate (change) particular bases of DNA. PCR can also be used to determine whether a particular DNA fragment is found in a cDNA library. PCR has many variations, like reverse transcription PCR (RT-PCR) for amplification of RNA, and, more recently, real-time PCR (qPCR) which allow for quantitative measurement of DNA or RNA molecules.
Gel electrophoresis is one of the principal tools of molecular biology. The basic principle is that DNA, RNA, and proteins can all be separated by means of an electric field. In agarose gel electrophoresis, DNA and RNA can be separated on the basis of size by running the DNA through an agarose gel. Proteins can be separated on the basis of size by using an SDS-PAGE gel, or on the basis of size and their electric charge by using what is known as a 2d gel.
Named after its inventor, biologist Edwin Southern, the Southern blot is a method for probing for the presence of a specific DNA sequence within a DNA sample. DNA samples before or after restriction enzyme digestion are separated by gel electrophoresis and then transferred to a membrane by blotting via capillary action. The membrane can then be probed using a DNA probe labeled using a complement of the sequence of interest. Most original protocols used radioactive labels, however non-radioactive alternatives are now available. Southern blotting is less commonly used in laboratory science due to the capacity of using PCR to detect specific DNA sequences from DNA samples. These blots are still used for some applications, however, such as measuring transgene copy number in transgenic mice, or in the engineering of gene knockout embryonic stem cell lines.
The Northern blot is used to study the expression patterns a specific type of RNA molecule as relative comparison among of a set of different samples of RNA. It is essentially a combination of denaturing RNA gel electrophoresis, and a blot. In this process RNA is separated based on size and is then transferred to a membrane that is then probed with a labeled complement of a sequence of interest. The results may be visualized through a variety of ways depending on the label used; however, most result in the revelation of bands representing the sizes of the RNA detected in sample. The intensity of these bands is related to the amount of the target RNA in the samples analyzed. The procedure is commonly used to study when and how much gene expression is occurring by measuring how much of that RNA is present in different samples. It is one of the most basic tools for determining at what time, and under what conditions, certain genes are expressed in living tissues.
Antibodies to most proteins can be created by injecting small amounts of the protein into an animal such as a mouse, rabbit, sheep, or donkey (polyclonal antibodies)or produced in cell culture (monoclonal antibodies). These antibodies can be used for a variety of analytical and preparative techniques.
In western blotting, proteins are first separated by size, in a thin gel sandwiched between two glass plates in a technique known as SDS-PAGE (sodium dodecyl sulphate polyacrylamide gel electrophoresis). The proteins in the gel are then transferred to a PVDF, nitrocellulose, nylon or other support membrane. This membrane can then be probed with solutions of antibodies. Antibodies that specifically bind to the protein of interest can then be visualized by a variety of techniques, including coloured products, chemiluminescence, or autoradiography.
Analogous methods to western blotting can also be used to directly stain specific proteins in cells and tissue sections. However, these immunostaining methods are typically more associated with cell biology than molecular biology.
The terms "western" and "northern" are jokes: The first blots were with DNA, and since they were done by Ed Southern, they came to be known as Southerns. Patricia Thomas, inventor of the RNA blot, which became known as a "northern", actually didn't use the term. . To carry the joke further, one can find reference in the literature  to "southwesterns" (Protein-DNA interactions) and "farwesterns" (Protein-Protein interactions).
A DNA array is a collection of spots attached to a solid support such as a microscope slide; each spot contains one or more DNA oligonucleotides. Arrays make it possible to put down a large number of very small (100 micrometre diameter) spots on a single slide; if each spot has a DNA molecule that is complementary to a single gene (similar to Southern blotting), one can analyze the expression of every gene in an organism in a single expression profiling experiment . For instance, the common baker's yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, contains about 7000 genes; with a microarray, one can measure quantitatively, how each gene is expressed, and how that expression changes, for example, with a change in temperature. There are many different ways to fabricate microarrays; the most common are silicon chips, microscope slides with spots of ~ 100 micrometre diameter, custom arrays, and arrays with larger spots on porous membranes (macroarrays).
Arrays can also be made with molecules other than DNA. For example, an antibody array can be used to determine what proteins or bacteria are present in a blood sample.
As new procedures and technology become available, the older technology is rapidly abandoned. A good example is methods for determining the size of DNA molecules. Prior to gel electrophoresis (agarose or polyacrylamide) DNA was sized with rate sedimentation in sucrose gradients, a slow and labor intensive technology requiring expensive instrumentation; prior to sucrose gradients, viscometry was used.
Aside from their historical interest, it is worth knowing about older technology as it may be useful to solve a particular problem.
Molecular biology was established in the 1930s, the term was first coined by Warren Weaver in 1938 however. Warren was director of Natural Sciences for the Rockefeller Foundation at the time and believed that biology was about to undergo a period of significant change given recent advances in fields such as X-ray crystallography. He therefore channeled significant amounts of (Rockefeller Institute) money into biological fields.
- History of molecular biology
- Cell biology (structures and components of the cell)
- DNA and chromosome structure
- Protein biosynthesis (transcription from DNA to RNA, translation from RNA into protein)
- Protein structure and diversity
- Important publications in molecular biology
- List of molecular biology topics
- Because of the expense, large instrumentation is usually gathered into a Molecular Biology Core Facility
- inborn errors of metabolism
- Molecular microbiology
Notable molecular biologists
- Francis Crick (see also James D. Watson)
- Erwin Chargaff
- Rosalind Franklin
- Francois Jacob
- Matthew Meselson
- Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard
- Linus Pauling
- Max Perutz
- Frederick Sanger
- Frank Stahl
- Susumu Tonegawa
- James D. Watson (see also Francis Crick)
- Maurice Wilkins
- Alexander Rich
- Reiji Okazaki
- Elizabeth Blackburn
- Cohen, S.N., Chang, A.C.Y., Boyer, H. & Heling, R.B. Construction of biologically functional bacterial plasmids in vitro. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 70, 3240 – 3244 (1973).
- Rodgers, M. The Pandora's box congress. Rolling Stone 189, 37 – 77 (1975).
- Keith Roberts, Martin Raff, Bruce Alberts, Peter Walter, Julian Lewis and Alexander Johnson, Molecular Biology of the Cell
- 4th Edition, Routledge, March, 2002, hardcover, 1616 pages, 7.6 pounds, ISBN 0-8153-3218-1
- 3th Edition, Garland, 1994, ISBN 0-8153-1620-8
- 2nd Edition, Garland, 1989, ISBN 0-8240-3695-6
- Latest molecular biology news articles at Biologynews.net
- Latest Biology news articles
- DNA Interactive
- DNA From The Beginning
- Frederick Sanger Freeview Video Interview/Documentary by the Vega Science Trust.
- Max Perutz Freeview Video interview with Max Perutz by the Vega Science Trust.
- Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard Freeview interview by the Vega Science Trust.
- The Collection of Biostatistics Research Archive
- Statistical Applications in Genetics and Molecular Biology
- The International Journal of Biostatistics
- The International Journal of Biological Sciences
- Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology
- Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology (journal home)
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry
- The Virtual Library of Biochemistry and Cell Biology
- A brief history of molecular biology
- A Monk's Flourishing Garden: the Basics of Molecular Biology Explained - a review from the Science Creative Quarterly
- The Molecular Biology Gateway
- Scientific American Magazine (April 2004 Issue) Evolution Encoded
- National Center for Biotechnology Information
- Current Issues in Molecular Biology
- Multimedia-video showwing the complexity of the molecular structur of the life molecules and Organelles
- Springer Protocols - protocols using Methods in Molecular Biology
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