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Bioscience Topics

Biophysics

Biophysics

Biophysics, also known as biological physics, is an interdisciplinary science that applies the principles of physics and chemistry and the methods of mathematical analysis and computer modeling to understand how the mechanisms of biological systems work.

Biophysics is a molecular science that seeks to explain biological function in terms of the molecular structures and properties of specific molecules. The size of these molecules varies dramatically, from small fatty acids and sugars (1 nanometer (nm), or the equivalent of three atoms in width), to macromolecules such as proteins (5 to 10 nm), to starches (greater than 1,000 nm and longer than the thickness of a human hair), to the enormously elongated DNA molecules (more than 1 centimeter long but only 20 nm wide, or the scaled equivalent of a piece of string 45 miles long). These biomolecules, the sole building blocks of living organisms, assemble into cells, tissues and whole organisms by forming complex individual structures that are visible under a light microscope.

Biophysics can trace its roots back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, who first developed hypotheses about the physical basis for consciousness and perception. It underwent rapid development after World War II, stimulated in part by the application of nuclear physics to biological systems, including the investigation of radiation effects on living matter. In the course of these studies, physicists were introduced to biologists and biological problems, and biophysics evolved as a new scientific field.

An important area of biophysical study is the detailed analysis of the structure of molecules in living systems. The best-known achievement related to this area is the model of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the hereditary material of life. What#rdquo;s more, the most famous biophysicist, Francis Crick, was one of three people who won the Nobel Prize for this accomplishment. The team used data from a technique known as X-ray crystallography, which reveals the physical patterns of molecules.

Today, biophysics seeks to answer diverse biological questions, such as “How are tiny molecules in our environment detected by a sense organ and converted into electrical impulses that provide the brain with information about the external world?” Biophysicists use the techniques of chemical, physical and biological analysis to answer such questions. Plus, they can investigate the relationship between biological function and molecular structure using highly precise and sensitive physical instruments and techniques able to monitor the properties or movement of specific groups of molecules. In fact, these instruments and techniques even can view and manipulate single molecules and measure their behavior.

Related Disciplines

As an interdisciplinary science, biophysics has a presence in numerous studies of the structure and function of biomolecules and cellular function. Some examples include:

Biochemistry and Chemistry

These deal with biomolecular structure, nucleic acid structure and structure-activity relationships.

Biology and Molecular Biology

These deal with gene regulation, single-protein dynamics, bioenergetics and biomechanics.

Computer Science

This deals with molecular simulations, neural networks and databases.

Mathematics

This deals with graph/network theory and population modeling.

Medicine and Neuroscience

These deal with neural networks examined experimentally (brain slicing, for example) as well as with theory (computer models), membrane permeability, gene therapy and cancer research.

Pharmacology and Physiology

These deal with membrane channel biology, biomolecular interactions and cellular membranes.

Physics

This deals with biomolecular free energy, biomolecular structures and dynamics, protein folding and surface dynamics.

Structural Biology

This deals with high-resolution structures of proteins, nucleic acids, lipids and carbohydrates.

Most people who become biophysicists discover in high school they are curious about natural phenomena, enjoy puzzles and problem solving and like designing and making things. Because very few colleges or universities offer an undergraduate major in biophysics, most students prepare for a career in biophysics by completing a major in physics, chemistry or mathematics with supplementary courses in biology. Numerous colleges and universities throughout the United States support graduate study in biophysics. Some offer specific graduate degrees in biophysics; others offer a specialization in biophysics as part of an advanced degree in chemistry, biology, physics or other field.

Because of the breadth of their training, a wide range of careers are open to biophysicists. Depending upon your interests and abilities, you might work primarily in the laboratory, work with computers, teach or become a science writer. Many biophysicists become faculty or staff members at colleges, universities or medical or dental schools, and there will be many openings for young faculty members in the next two decades. Biophysicists whose primary interest is in research often work in government, private research institutes or industry. Many new positions have been created in industry as a result of recent developments in molecular biophysics and molecular biology. Regardless of the setting, biophysicists generally work in groups with people with different backgrounds, interests and abilities who collaborate to solve common problems.