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The Molecular Basis of Life


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 7
  • Convenor: Dr Mark Williams
  • Assessment: online multiple-choice tests (30%) and coursework (70%)

Module description

In this module we introduce fundamental biological topics from a molecular structural and computational perspective, including: proteins as the principle molecular machines of life; DNA as the information store of life; cell biology and the major domains of life; microbial life and infectious disease; immunity; genetics and mechanisms of evolution. There is a strong emphasis on the structure of molecules, particularly proteins, which are the nanoscale machines that carry out most processes in living organisms.

The module is intended to be accessible and relevant to students from both biological and non-biological undergraduate backgrounds.

Indicative syllabus

Common core

  • The historical development of molecular biology
  • DNA makes RNA makes protein
  • DNA as the information store of life - the double helix and the genetic code
  • Synthesis of proteins by the ribosome, ribosomal, messenger and transfer RNAs
  • Proteins as the principle molecular machines of life
  • Sequence similarity and alignment as a means of determining homology
  • Protein structure: the properties of amino acids, primary, secondary and tertiary structure of proteins
  • Common architectural features of proteins and their prediction from sequence
  • Protein stereochemistry: physical constraints on protein structure
  • Enzymes
  • Protein domains as structural, functional and evolutionary units
  • Use of software for the visualisation and analysis of protein structures
  • Drug discovery and docking
  • The major domains of life: prokaryotes, eukaryotes and archaea: their distinct cellular architectures and evolutionary relationships
  • Organisation of cellular processes: regulation of gene expression and protein activity
  • Genomics: history and the present status of sequencing technologies and their application to model organisms
  • Transcriptomics, proteomics, metabolomics and cellular networks
  • Evolution: natural selection, population genetics, familial inheritance and phylogenetics
  • Mechanisms of genetic variation
  • Making effective presentations
  • The scientific literature and bibliographic searching
  • Reading the original research literature
  • Further study and careers

Bioinformatics and structural biology

  • Protein structure determination methods
  • Protein stereochemical and secondary structure analysis
  • Protein structure quality
  • Molecular modelling and simulation
  • Protein structure prediction

Microbiology and disease

  • Bacterial taxonomy and evolution
  • Microbial diseases
  • Viral diseases
  • The immune system
  • Antimicrobial resistance mechanisms

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will:

  • know a wide range of facts concerning biomolecular structure, cell biology, genetics and evolution and appreciate the mechanistic and conceptual connections between these areas of knowledge
  • have read primary scientific publications in genomics/molecular evolution/microbiology and be able to demonstrate critical understanding
  • be able to use websites and specialist software for protein structure visualisation
  • be able to describe features of a protein structure at the global and residue level and describe their relationship to the protein’s function
  • be able to create informative illustrations of protein structure for use in presentations, reports and publications
  • be able to carry out quantitative analyses of protein structure (secondary and tertiary structure, local stereochemistry, non-bonded interactions)
  • be able to carry out a functional analysis of (part of) a microbial genome using bioinformatic tools.