Recommended curriculum for a program in biochemistry and molecular biology


The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) last developed a new curriculum for an undergraduate program in biochemistry and molecular biology in 1992. The intervening years have seen enormous change in both the subject matter and in our understanding of good teaching practices. The Education and Professional Development Committee of ASBMB has been working for the last 3 years to develop a new curriculum that takes account of these changes. This recommendation represents a work in progress; the Committee intends to revisit this issue at regular intervals.

It is no longer adequate to describe a curriculum only in terms of the courses it contains. Instead it is important that the description focus on the concepts, content, and topics of the program as well as the student outcomes that should be expected from the program. The recommended curriculum (Table I) is a compromise between the traditional, course-centered approach to curriculum and the more modern content and outcome-centered approach. It is the intent of the Committee that curriculum designers should have flexibility about how the content is organized. The course organization given below is only one of many ways that the material might be organized. The description also contains a list of recommended skills that students should acquire during their undergraduate years in a biochemistry/molecular biology program (Table II).

The separation of biochemistry topics from molecular biology topics, as well as the separation of chemistry topics from biology topics, has roots in the traditional departmental division between chemistry departments and biology departments. Biochemistry/molecular biology departments or programs can stand in different relationships to the two core subjects, and the organization of course material may differ substantially from that recommended here. The important things are the overall content and coherence of the program as well as the skills that students are expected to acquire.

Research experience is an essential part of the undergraduate experience in biochemistry and molecular biology. However, it is acknowledged that this research experience may in some cases be achieved through well designed laboratory courses rather than through an extended period in an individual research laboratory.

The National Institutes of Health and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have commissioned a report on undergraduate biology curricula for those entering the biomedical sciences [1]. This detailed, 144-page report describes the rapidly changing nature of the field and its educational requirements. It is a “must read” for those developing interdisciplinary programs in biochemistry and molecular biology as well as those interested in assessing the strength of their current program.

Table Table I. Recommended curriculum for a biochemistry and molecular biology undergraduate major
Core contentaUsual coursesSemesters
Atomic structure, molecular structure and spectroscopy, periodicity, thermodynamics, kinetics, bonding (covalent and noncovalent), reactions and stoichiometry, acids/bases, descriptive inorganic, transition metals, redox.Introductory Chemistry with lab1–2
Structure/bonding/nomenclature, functional groups, instrumental structure determination, stereochemistry, synthesis, reaction mechanisms and intermediates, molecular recognition, organometallics, combinatorial chemistry, bioorganic (amino acids, peptides, lipids, carbohydrates, nucleotides).Organic Chemistry with lab2
Cell structure, biomolecule structure and function, protein structure/function, biological catalysts, introductory enzyme kinetics, allosteric regulation, bioenergetics and equilibria, DNA/RNA structure and function, metabolism and regulation, signal transduction, supramolecular assemblies.Biochemistry with lab3
Advanced topics in protein structure and function: enzyme kinetics, mechanisms of reversible and irreversible enzyme inhibitors, ligand binding, detailed chemical mechanisms of enzymes, protein folding, molecular basis for protein function, regulation of protein activity, proteomics.  
Physical biochemistry: thermodynamics, kinetics, molecular spectroscopy, solutions and equilibria, ligand interactions, molecular modeling.  
Lab skills: isolation and characterization of proteins and other biomolecules, enzyme kinetics and inhibition, genetic engineering techniques, quantitative techniques, data acquisition/statistics, use of computer databases, spectroscopy (e.g. UV/VIS, fluorescence, NMR, MS), chromatography (HPLC, etc.), electrophoretic techniques (e.g. PAGE, IEF, CE, etc.).  
Cell structure and function, organelles etc., introduction to metabolism and concepts of compartmentation and tissue specialization, including plant, animal, bacterial, fungal cells, etc. The “Central Dogma.”Introductory Biology with lab1
Advanced discussion of classical genetics and the “Central Dogma”: DNA replication, transcription and translation, topics in DNA/RNA structure/function, genomics, regulation of gene expression in prokaryotes and eukaryotes, protein synthesis and processing, genetic engineering techniques, bioinformatics.Molecular Genetics & Regulation with lab1
Lab skills: DNA isolation and sequencing, cloning, PCR, genetic engineering techniques, microscopy, aseptic techniques, microarrays.  
Physics: should be calculus-based and may be Life Science-oriented.Physics2
Experimentally based research, including a formal proposal, report, and presentations.Research experience2
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    a The abbreviations used are: VIS, visible; MS, mass spectrometry; HPLC, high pressure liquid chromatography; IEF, isoelectric focusing; CE, capillary electrophoresis.

Two courses taken from advanced offerings in the chemistry, biology, physics, engineering, mathematics, or computer science departments. 2
Table Table II. Skills that biochemistry and molecular biology students should obtain by the time they have finished their undergraduate program
Understanding of the fundamentals of chemistry and biology and the key principles of biochemistry and molecular biology.
Awareness of the major issues at the forefront of the discipline.
Ability to assess primary papers critically.
Good “quantitative” skills such as the ability to accurately and reproducibly prepare reagents for experiments.
Ability to dissect a problem into its key features.
Ability to design experiments and understand the limitations of what the experimental approach can and cannot tell you.
Ability to interpret experimental data and identify consistent and inconsistent components.
Ability to design follow-up experiments.
Ability to work safely and effectively in a laboratory.
Awareness of the available resources and how to use them.
Ability to use computers as information and research tools.
Ability to collaborate with other researchers.
Ability to use oral, written, and visual presentations to present their work to both a science-literate and a science-non-literate audience.
Ability to think in an integrated manner and look at problems from different perspectives.
Awareness of the ethical issues in the molecular life sciences.