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4 | 2008-2009
The Letter
Academic year 2008-2009
Selected papers
Inaugural lectures

Chair of Chemistry of Biological Processes

Marc Fontecave
p. 20
Cet article est une traduction de :
Chimie des processus biologiques

Notes de la rédaction

Marc Fontecave gave his inaugural lesson on 26 March 2009. His course entitled « La chimie du vivant : enzymes et métalloenzymes, des bio-catalyseurs fascinants » began on 1april 2009.

The inaugural lecture is available from Editions Fayard. The video is available on the College de France website.

Texte intégral

Extracts from the inaugural lecture:

1“As discussed in the following, chemists have always been fascinated by the molecular nature of life. As a matter of fact, a living cell might just be seen as a very small drop of liquid, made of thousands of molecules displaying a variety of sizes and shapes and exchanging energy and matter with the environment. Small, a cell, but more and more visible, observable and thus objective, as is its molecular content as well, thanks to modern imaging techniques such as microscopy. Life is made from the “informed” matter resulting from the exquisite communication between these molecules, through fine interactions within complex networks, which can anyhow be described by the laws of physics and chemistry. Life also depends on the “transformed” matter derived from a dynamic interconnection of thousands of chemical reactions. So far these cellular reactions proceed with rates and yields with no equivalent in chemical laboratories but nevertheless they are not more than chemical reactions. Because chemistry is the science of “informed” and “transformed” matter, chemists have in their hands unique tools to provide insights into the understanding of the living world.

2One important outcome of their studies is the evidence for a remarkable chemical unity of life. As a matter of fact, the same essential molecules and macromolecules, whose number is quite limited, are found in all living organisms, bacteria, mammals or plants. The diversity of the living world is thus not a consequence of a chemical diversity but instead a result of unlimited complex combinations of the finite pool of molecules. It is precisely this finiteness which makes chemistry a suitable science for the exploration of life. Through the prism, admittedly limited but obviously appropriate, of the molecular content of living organisms and with the language and the representations of chemistry, understanding life thus becomes an accessible project….The discovery and the characterization of a new biological reaction can immediately provide useful information regarding hundreds of related reactions. François Jacob, in his book La Logique du Vivant, nicely raised this issue. It is a kind of economical logic consisting, once a chemical solution has been discovered for a given application, in an extensive exploitation of this solution in all possible applications, before trying to invent a new one…  

3Chemistry is what all living organisms of the universe have in common: same genes and same chemical components. As a consequence chemistry tells us that our neighbour, white, black or yellow, is not different from ourselves. It links us to the earth from which we all come, since we are just the chemical products of the transformations undergone by the food provided by that earth, and in which we end up, giving back to it, for a new life cycle, all the chemical elements of which we are made. In this return, there is no more life, no more complexity, and no more diversity, but only our cold and endless molecules, at last revealing our profound and obvious chemical identity.

4Finally, chemistry provides a connection to our ancestors, the first living organisms on the earth, 3.5 billions years ago. Life exists because it discovered chemical solutions to start the flame and to sustain it and many of these primitive mechanisms have been surprisingly preserved and improved since then. It is chemistry which allows to ask ourselves: “how did it begin?” Finally, it is the molecular unity of life from the origins which gives us the permission to believe that we are eternal, to believe that men have an endless chemical destiny.”

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Référence papier

The Letter of the Collège de France, Collège de France, Paris, juin 2009, p. 20. ISSN 1958-1408

Référence électronique

Marc Fontecave, « Chair of Chemistry of Biological Processes », La lettre du Collège de France [En ligne], 4 | 2008-2009, mis en ligne le 15 novembre 2010, consulté le 16 janvier 2019. URL :

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Marc Fontecave

Member of Académie des sciences, Chairman of Conseil scientifique de la ville de Paris, Silver medal of the CNRS

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