molecular biology

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.
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molecular biology

molecular biology, scientific study of the molecular basis of life processes, including cellular respiration, excretion, and reproduction. The term molecular biology was coined in 1938 by Warren Weaver, then director of the natural sciences program at the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1950 W. T. Astbury of the Univ. of Leeds used the term in its now accepted sense, to describe the area of research, closely related to and often overlapping biochemistry, conducted by biologists whose approach to and interest in biology are principally at the molecular level of organization. The field of molecular biology has grown with the increasing sophistication of available techniques and has quickly built upon its own increases in the understanding of biological processes. In the 1930s, with the help of the technique of ultracentrifugation, the macromolecules were first studied in detail and their crystalline properties described. In the 1940s the process by which individual genes produce their unique products began to be understood as resulting from the different sequences of the base pairs that make up the genes. In the 1950s Linus Pauling described the three-dimensional structure of proteins, and James Watson and Francis Crick described the double helix of the DNA molecule. Further advances were made in understanding DNA, protein, and virus synthesis and the regulation of genes, and by the 1970s, the techniques of genetic engineering were enabling molecular biologists to study higher plants and animals, opening up the possibility of manipulating plant and animal genes to achieve greater agricultural productivity. Such techniques also opened the way for the development of gene therapy.

See A. Darbre, Introduction to Practical Molecular Biology (1988).

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