Describe the field of biology, and explain what biologists do.

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Biology (from the Greek bios, meaning "life") is the scientific study of all forms of life, including plants, animals, and microorganisms.

The word “biology” has its etymological roots in Greek, as “bios” means “life.” Biology is the scientific study of all life, including humans, animals, plants, and microorganisms.

Since it is such a vast term, biology is broken down into many fields. Microbiologists study viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms. Cytologists study cells. Embryologists research issues related to development. Geneticists investigate heredity. Biochemists study the chemical structures of living organisms.  Morphologists study the anatomy of plants and animals. Taxonomists identify, name, and classify organisms.  Physiologists study how organic system function and respond to stimulation. The work that biologists do often combines its findings with other disciplines. Geneticists, for example, can sometimes offer a biological explanation for human behavior or conditions, for example, there has been work linking obesity to genetics.   

Biology has a long history, beginning with the Greek philosopher Aristotle in the fourth century B.C.  Aristotle emphasized that observation and analysis were the critical first steps to scientific inquiry. 

It was Aristotle who organized the basic principles  of classification, the principles of dividing and subdividing plants and animals. The Arab world was studying biology by 200 A.D; their scientists focused most of their efforts on medicine and agriculture. They continued this important work throughout the Middle Ages. 

Here are several terms within the fields of biology with which you should be aware:

Classification: The system of arranging plants and animals in groups according to their similarities.

Genetic engineering: Altering hereditary material (by a scientist in a lab) by interfering in the natural genetic process.

Germ theory of disease: The belief that disease is caused by germs.

Microorganism: An organism that cannot be seen without magnification under a microscope.

Molecular biology: A branch of biology that deals with the physical and chemical structure of living things on the molecular level.

Natural selection: Process by which those organisms best adapted to their environment survive and pass their traits to offspring.

Biology regained momentum during the Renaissance, with particular credit going to the Italian artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, both of whom created detailed anatomical drawing of human.  During this time, cadavers were also dissected for the first time, and their internal workings described.  Formal experimentation, however, did not take place until the seventeenth century, when the English physician William Harvey, successfully demonstrated how the blood circulated through the body.  His work launched physiology.

The explosion of research led to the foundation of the first scientific academies and the establishment of the first scientific journals. The first official school, opening in 1603, was the Academy of the Lynx in Rome. The first journals were printed in 1665 in France and Great Britain.

The next huge leap in biology came when with the invention of the microscope. The microscope allowed scientists to closely observe organisms at the cellular and, eventually, when they became powerful enough, the molecular level.  The first drawings of magnified life were of a honeybee magnified ten times its normal size.

In the eighteenth century, the Swedish botant Carolus Linnaeus created a more nuanced system of classification of plants and animals that replaced Aristotle’s original system:  Linnaeus’ broke down the categories which rank plants and animals according to their similarities; he called these levels class, order, genus and species.  We use the Linneaus classification system to this day. Linnaeus is also responsible for popularizing binomial nomenclature; each organism has a Latin name that identifies its genus and species, for example cats are “Felis catus” and humans are “homo sapiens.”

Darwin exploded the field of biology with his 1859 work The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. His theory of evolution was accepted by the majority of people in the scientific community and eventually, most of the lay community.

Also of significance to the field of biology was the French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose work proved that “living things do not arise spontaneously.”  This work led to the creation of the first vaccines.  Germ theory was established Robert Koch a German physician, during the nineteenth century.

The twentieth century saw the invention of chemotherapy as well as the widespread use of antibiotics, as well as sulfa drugs and, by the 1940s, penicillin.

While it seems that the vast majority of biological science discoveries occurred between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, work continues into the twenty-first, especially in the fields of genetic engineering and microbiology. 

Source: Encyclopedia of Science, ©2005 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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Biology is the study of living organisms, both single and multiple cell, including plants, animals and humans.  In short, it involves the study of every living thing for the purpose of understanding the structures and functions of every element or component of life. Biologists are scientists who engage in this field of study, which involves many hours dissecting living organisms to examine their structure and to gain an understanding of how those organisms' myriad “systems” function and relate to each other. For example, dissecting – and it should be pointed out that dissection or vivisection is increasingly attacked by animal rights advocates as inhumane, leading to efforts at developing computer-simulated specimen images and procedures – is performed on an animal or on a human cadaver so that the biologists and others, for example, medical students, can gain an understanding of how the circulatory, respiratory, neurological and other subordinate systems relate to each other and how they are physically arranged. 

Without the study of biology, there would be no knowledge of the human body and, consequently, no medical recourse for injuries and illnesses.  The study of biology is as old as civilization itself.  Ancient Egyptians and Greeks engaged in the academic study of biology and provided the historical foundation for the development of the field of medicine.  That mankind continues to struggle to understand human and animal anatomy, especially with respect to the brain and how thoughts and emotions develop, is testament to the enduring importance of biology and those who engage in it.

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