Biochemistry is closely related to molecular biology, the study of the molecular mechanisms by which genetic information encoded in DNA is able to result in the processes of life. Depending on the exact definition of the terms used, molecular biology can be thought of as a branch of biochemistry, or biochemistry as a tool with which to investigate and study molecular biology.
Much of biochemistry deals with the structures, functions and interactions of biological macromolecules, such as proteins, nucleic acids, carbohydrates and lipids, which provide the structure of cells and perform many of the functions associated with life. The chemistry of the cell also depends on the reactions of smaller molecules and ions. These can be inorganic, for example water and metal ions, or organic, for example the amino acids, which are used to synthesize proteins. The mechanisms by which cells harness energy from their environment via chemical reactions are known as metabolism. The findings of biochemistry are applied primarily in medicine, nutrition, and agriculture. In medicine, biochemists investigate the causes and cures of diseases. In nutrition, they study how to maintain health wellness and study the effects of nutritional deficiencies. In agriculture, biochemists investigate soil and fertilizers, and try to discover ways to improve crop cultivation, crop storage and pest control.
At its broadest definition, biochemistry can be seen as a study of the components and composition of living things and how they come together to become life, in this sense the history of biochemistry may therefore go back as far as the ancient Greeks. However, biochemistry as a specific scientific discipline has its beginning sometime in the 19th century, or a little earlier, depending on which aspect of biochemistry is being focused on. Some argued that the beginning of biochemistry may have been the discovery of the first enzyme, diastase (today called amylase), in 1833 by Anselme Payen, while others considered Eduard Buchner's first demonstration of a complex biochemical process alcoholic fermentation in cell-free extracts in 1897 to be the birth of biochemistry. Some might also point as its beginning to the influential 1842 work by Justus von Liebig, Animal chemistry, or, Organic chemistry in its applications to physiology and pathology, which presented a chemical theory of metabolism, or even earlier to the 18th century studies on fermentation and respiration by Antoine Lavoisier. Many other pioneers in the field who helped to uncover the layers of complexity of biochemistry have been proclaimed founders of modern biochemistry, for example Emil Fischer for his work on the chemistry of proteins, and F. Gowland Hopkins on enzymes and the dynamic nature of biochemistry.
The term "biochemistry" itself is derived from a combination of biology and chemistry. In 1877, Felix Hoppe-Seyler used the term (biochemie in German) as a synonym for physiological chemistry in the foreword to the first issue of Zeitschrift für Physiologische Chemie (Journal of Physiological Chemistry) where he argued for the setting up of institutes dedicated to this field of study. The German chemist Carl Neuberg however is often cited to have coined the word in 1903, while some credited it to Franz Hofmeister.
It was once generally believed that life and its materials had some essential property or substance (often referred to as the "vital principle") distinct from any found in non-living matter, and it was thought that only living beings could produce the molecules of life. Then, in 1828, Friedrich Wöhler published a paper on the synthesis of urea, proving that organic compounds can be created artificially. Since then, biochemistry has advanced, especially since the mid-20th century, with the development of new techniques such as chromatography, X-ray diffraction, dual polarisation interferometry, NMR spectroscopy, radioisotopic labeling, electron microscopy, and molecular dynamics simulations. These techniques allowed for the discovery and detailed analysis of many molecules and metabolic pathways of the cell, such as glycolysis and the Krebs cycle (citric acid cycle), and led to an understanding of biochemistry on a molecular level.