Biophysics is a branch of science that uses the methods of physics to study biological processes. Physics uses mathematical laws to explain the natural world, and it can be applied to biological organisms and systems to gain insight into their workings. Research in biophysics has helped prevent and treat disease, advance drug development, and create technology to allow humans to live more sustainably and protect the changing environment.
History of Biophysics
Biophysics is a relatively young branch of science; it arose as a definite subfield in the early to mid-20th Century. However, the foundations for the study of biophysics were laid down much earlier, in the 19th Century, by a group of physiologists in Berlin. The Berlin school of physiologists included Hermann von Helmholtz, Emil DuBois-Reymond, Ernst von Brücke, and Carl Ludwig. In 1856, Adolf Fick, one of Ludwig’s students, even published the first biophysics textbook. But technology in physics had not sufficiently advanced at this time to study lifeforms in a detailed way, such as at the molecular level.
In the first half of the 20th Century, German scientists dominated the biophysics. They studied electromagnetic fields and light, and they became mainly concerned with studying the effects of radiation on living things. The popularity of biophysics rose when the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger published the book What is Life? in 1944. This book was based on a series of public lectures that Schrödinger gave on explaining the processes of living things through physics and chemistry. In it, he proposed the idea that there was a molecule in living things that contained genetic information in covalent bonds. This inspired scientists such as James Watson and Francis Crick to search for and characterize the genetic molecule, and with the aid of Rosalind Franklin’s x-ray crystallography research, they discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1953.
By the mid-20th century, biophysics programs had sprung up and gained popularity in other countries, and from 1950-1970, biophysics research occurred at a faster rate than ever before. In addition to the discovery of DNA and its structure, biophysics techniques were also used to create vaccines, develop imaging techniques such as MRI and CAT scans to help doctors diagnose diseases, and create new treatment methods such as dialysis, radiation therapy, and pacemakers. Currently, biophysics has also begun to focus on issues related to the Earth’s changing climate. For example, some biophysicists are working on developing biofuels from living microorganisms that could replace gasoline as a fuel.
Areas of Biophysics
Biophysics is incorporated into many diverse areas of biology. Some research topics in biophysics or involving biophysics include:
- Membrane biophysics: the study of the structure and function of cell membranes, including the ion channels, proteins, and receptors embedded within them.
- Computational/theoretical biophysics: using mathematical modeling to study biological systems.
- Protein engineering: creating and modifying proteins to advance synthetic biology. Often used to advance human health in the form of new disease treatments.
- Molecular structures: biophysics studies the molecular structures of biological molecules including proteins, nucleic acids, and lipids.
- Mechanisms: using physical mechanisms to explain the occurrence of biological processes. Some physical mechanisms include energy transduction in membranes, protein folding and structure leading to specific functions, cell movement, and the electrical behavior of cells.
Here, a biophysicist in a U.S. Food and Drug Administration lab is studying the electrical activity of the heart as related to pacemaker and defibrillator use.
Some universities offer undergraduate Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degrees in Biophysics, while others only offer a Biophysics degree at the graduate level (i.e., a master’s and/or doctorate degree). Biophysics degrees are heavily focused on physics and biophysics courses, and usually those who major in biophysics are required to take numerous math and chemistry classes as well. At the undergraduate level, one can expect to take courses in general and organic chemistry, calculus, mechanics, linear algebra, and biochemistry. Other possible courses include cell biology, genetics, molecular biology, statistics, and computational biology, among others. Another important component of many biophysics degrees is research; some programs require research in a laboratory to be done for a certain number of semesters, culminating in a senior research project. The specific courses offered in a biophysics major program can vary from university to university, but majoring in biophysics will adequately prepare a student to begin their career in biophysics research.
If a student is interested in biophysics but their school does not offer a biophysics degree, there are often comparable programs found in other majors that include much of the same courses. Majoring in physics is another good option, and one may consider adding another major or minor in biochemistry, chemistry, or biology depending on research interests and the programs offered.
The most common career options for biophysicists include research, teaching, or a combination of both. A master’s degree is generally needed to become a biophysics teacher, lab manager or research associate, while a PhD is necessary in order to be the principal investigator of a research laboratory. Principal investigators design experiments and oversee all of the research being done in a lab, while lab managers and research associates have a more supporting role and assist the principal investigator in carrying out their research. Those with bachelor’s degrees may obtain positions as research technicians, which are also important in the laboratory. Research technicians carry out a lot of the benchwork of scientific experiments, allowing the principal investigator time to write scientific papers, research proposals, and grants.