Biology

Understanding biology

What is biology?

One of the so-called natural sciences, biology concerns the study of two main topics. The first is life itself. This is the processes – chemical and otherwise – that all living things go through that distinguish them from non-living materials. The second is the wider study of living organisms, including animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. Biologists tend to focus on the physiologies of such organisms as well as their chemical processes, molecular interactions, their development and their evolutionary processes. The word biology is Greek in origin. Bio essentially means life, while ology refers to a field of knowledge.

How is biology used in everyday life? 

Biology is used in many aspects of environmental management. It is only by understanding how flora and fauna flourish that we can manage the environment properly to preserve them. Biology is also used extensively in farming where the environment is adapted to provide optimised growth of certain crops or livestock. Understanding and manipulating the biology of wheat plants have played a big part in human consumption, for instance. The same goes for crops grown for non-food purposes, such as cotton. In addition, biology plays a significant role in life sciences, including nearly all aspects of modern Western medicine.

When do biology and physics meet?

Although many people understand the connection between chemistry and biology very well, the intersection between it and physics can be a little harder to grasp. However, the field of so-called biomechanics is a good example of where the two disciplines come together. Understanding the physics of a knee joint, for instance, allows biologists to come up with better treatments for them. When the DNA double helix was first discovered, it was a technique developed in physics – x-ray diffraction - which was behind it. Life scientists now routinely make use of both fields of study together.

What branches of biology are there?

There are a number of sub-disciplines with biology. Structural biology deals with science from the molecular level and includes fields like genetics and the study of cells. Physiology deals with the structure of entire beings, from plants to humans. It can also look into biological systems, such as the nervous system, for example. Evolutionary research is yet another field that deals with the changing nature of species. Other classes of the science include ecology and zoology.

What questions does biology still have to answer?

Most biologists would agree that there is no consensus within the science as to what causes ageing. Although this is a widely studied topic, no single answer has yet been put forward to explain it. Biology only has loose answers to explain the origins of life on Earth, too. Although it is known certain conditions need to exist to sustain it, no explanation of what might have kicked-started it has been proven. Lastly, some of the geometric patterns found in nature have no explanation from the point of view of which biological processes are responsible for them.

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Genetics is the study of genes and how they impact over several generations in a variety of organisms. As such, it is a branch of biology. It was discovered in the 1800s that certain inherited traits affected species of pea plants. This accounted for what we now call genetic variation in evolution. When genetics was first being thought about, however, the term unit of inheritance tended to be used. We now know that molecular mechanisms are at play in all living things that impact on what future generations will look like and behave. These molecules are called genes and the study of them – and their effects – is, therefore, called genetics.
Hormones are certain types of molecules that are found in nature that act as signallers. They are transported around a living being to change the behaviour or the physiology of an individual. A typical example is oestrogen, which is found in all mammals. This regulates many reproductive functions, especially in females. Although their chemical nature differs greatly depending on the particular hormone, they fall into three main categories. Eicosonads are an enzyme form of hormone while steroids tend to make up cell structures and are found in fungi and plants as well as animals. Thirdly, there are amino acids which are hormones that are derived from protein forms.
Although humankind has been using techniques that may be described as biotechnological for centuries, the term itself only came into common usage in the early part of the twentieth century. In the past, biotechnology might have involved things like artificial selection processes for improving the ability of certain crops to survive, for example. Then, there is hybridisation, a way in which people have made entirely new sub-species for themselves. These days, biotechnology includes all sorts of molecular-level processes to engineer the biologies of both plants and animals. It covers bio-manufacturing, bio-engineering, medicine production, gene therapies and food production, among many other aspects.
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