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A substance that initiates or increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being permanently changed by the process, often by reducing the activation energy required to get the reaction going. "It brings reactants together but does not end up among the products of the reaction—a function aptly reflected in the Chinese term for catalyst, tsoo mei, which literally means 'marriage broker'"—Molecular Cell Biology, Harvey Lodish, et al.
A catalyst often does its work by combining with an element of a reaction in such a way that the resulting chemical structure is less stable, and therefore more prone to reaction.
Most biological catalysts are proteins called enzymes. There are thousands of enzymes found in a typical animal cell, each playing a part in a different chemical reaction.
RNA can also act as a catalyst within the cell, encouraging such reactions as protein formation and DNA replication. It is such a long and complicated molecule that it is even able to self-catalyze as its parts interact to facilitate internal changes.
Well known catalysts of political and social change are hardship and hope.