Ability to recite fails to excite

July 14, 2000

With the advances in biology andchemistry, Ellis Bell argues thatstudent scientists must research as they are taught and learn to understand, not just memorise, to advance the genome revolution.

The end of the 20th century brought a revolution in genomics. As we approach the complete sequence of the human genome and the birth of proteomics, attention has turned to when and where the gene products - the proteins and enzymes upon which the everyday functioning of cells depends - are expressed.

With this revolution has come a massive increase in our know-ledge about the number of genes involved with the processes that are the core of biochemistry and molecular biology.

In our efforts to understand the chemistry and biology of these processes, experimental approaches, such as phage display, combinatorial chemistry and computational approaches to "decode" the genome, are being developed. We are still faced, however, with the quintessential question of biochemistry and molecular biology: how does structure govern function?

From the perspective of educating new generations of biochemists and molecular biologists, this presents a problem. It is no longer sufficient to teach increasing numbers of "facts".

Students need to understand the fundamentals of biology and chemistry and how they relate to the central issues of biochemistry and molecular biology. How does sequence determine the detail and dynamics of molecular structure, how does catalysis work at the molecular and atomic level, and how are biological processes integrated?

Details of given processes are less relevant than students understanding how the information is acquired, how experiments are designed and how data are interpreted. In the past ten years in the United States there has been a revolution in undergraduate education as the importance of research as a teaching pedagogy has been recognised.

At colleges such as Gustavus Adolphus, students pursue research projects, often throughout their undergraduate training, as part of their education. The research "mindset" introduced in lectures is built upon in more open-ended integrated laboratories and fostered by state-of-the-art seminars by invited speakers.

Although a start, this is not enough. Examination systems increasingly foster memory over understanding: it is much easier to quantitate and hence validate the outcome of student "learning". This must change.

Examinations should test ability to interpret data and design follow-up experiments and discuss the underlying principles that go into an experiment or observation.

How do we achieve these goals? We must continue to evolve the way in which we teach. Just as the revolution in genomics and proteomics has changed the ways scientists approach problems, why not let them change the ways we teach the subject?

We have, for example, developed a "problem" that focuses on HIV protease sequences. Students access databases containing all known sequences and the three-dimensional structure of the HIV protease, and a series of questions encourages them to delve into structure function relationships at the atomic level to make deductions about the roles of each amino acid in the protein.

Discussion evolves into a consideration of the catalytic mechanism, specificity, evolution of drug resistance, dynamics of the structure and the evolution of the gene itself. Students learn about fundamental aspects of the biology, chemistry and physics related to the protein's function.

While it would be advantageous to replace curriculums that "teach" the fundamentals as separate subjects and, instead, use an integrated problem-oriented approach, this is unlikely unless separate courses are developed for biochemistry students.

The digital revolution gives another approach to integrate underlying principles that are critical to biochemistry. We are at the start of a multi-institution effort to create a website, "Biochemistry Explorer" that will take every biochemically relevant molecule and relate its fundamental chemical and physical properties to its biological roles. Students will be reminded of the many ways in which structure relates to function, and the fundamentals of chemistry, physics and biology that are an integral part of biochemistry and molecular biology.

Ellis Bell is professor of biochemistry at Gustavus Adolphus College, Minnesota, United States.

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