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What is Biology all about?
You might have heard that a degree in Biology (also sometimes titled Biological Sciences) is all about plants, animals, and maybe a bit about bacteria. And whilst these subjects are all covered, there is so much more to Biology.
Another fairly common misconception about a degree in Biology is that it mainly involves studying humans and their anatomy, but this is not really the case and better describes degrees like Biomedical sciences.
Instead, Biology is the study of all life. If you choose a degree in Biology, you will be learning about microscopic and macroscopic, living or once-living organisms (and even some non-living agents) across evolutionary time.
Typical topics covered in a Biological Sciences degree
An understanding of the core concepts of biological chemistry is essential for all biologists as they will pop up throughout your degree and future scientific career. You may be familiar with some of the stages in respiration, such as glycolysis and The Krebs Cycle. To explore fascinating biological processes like these, you will first need a basic understanding of how chemical reactions work.
Biological chemistry also covers topics such as redox (reduction and oxidation), acids and bases, equilibrium and different types of bonds. These will all come in useful in a range of scenarios, for example, when studying reactions involving enzymes, or the nature of biological molecules like DNA and proteins.
If you didn’t particularly enjoy chemistry in school, don’t worry! The level of chemistry required in a Biology degree is typically quite limited and your lecturers will make sure to start with the basics. Also, it becomes very exciting when you are later able to apply the biological chemistry concepts you’ve learnt.
Microbiology is the study of living organisms (again, and some non-living agents) that are too small to be seen with the naked eye. This includes bacteria, viruses, archaea, algae, protozoans and even prions. Despite the size of these organisms, the world of microbiology is huge. Unfortunately, it isn’t really covered in school, but a Biology degree will give you the opportunity to study microbiology in quite a bit of depth.
You will probably study some medical microbiology, which basically involves any microorganisms which cause disease (i.e. pathogens) and even non-pathogenic microorganisms which have the potential to help treat diseases or are medically related in some other way. But microbiology is not just restricted to disease as microorganisms are all around us, in our homes and in natural environments like the soil and sea. The unique nature of all of these microorganisms means we can learn a lot from them and stand to benefit from many of their behaviours (think plastic-degrading bacteria!).
There are a number of basic principles that will undoubtedly be covered in any Biology degree as they form the foundation of almost all areas you will study or even work on during the future.
The main fundamental macromolecules studied in molecular biology are DNA, RNA and proteins. As well as exploring their structure, you will explore the processes these macromolecules are involved in, such as DNA replication, transcription and translation, and what their role is in the cell. Although you probably may have come across these molecules and processes before, they will be taught to you in greater depth during your degree so you will eventually have a much better understanding of them at a molecular level. These complex structures and functions are all critical to life so molecular biology is a truly fascinating and essential field.
As well as understanding this theory, there are some exciting and widely used laboratory techniques that you will have the opportunity to try out during your Biology degree. For example, electrophoresis is a technique that is used by scientists to separate DNA, RNA or protein molecules in a mixture. There are different variations of this method that are used depending on exactly what is being separated and whether they need to be separated by size or charge.
Another method you will use is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which uses an enzyme called DNA polymerase to amplify a specific DNA sequence exponentially, resulting in lots of copies of the template.
The final example I will mention is molecular cloning, but bear in mind that this list of techniques is not exhaustive- there is a huge range of techniques used in molecular biology and the field is constantly evolving as new findings are made and methods are developed. Molecular cloning involves a series of techniques used to isolate a DNA sequence from one organism which can then be manipulated and put into a vector. In this context, the vector is something that carries the DNA molecule (known as recombinant DNA) and can be used to replicate.
How do cells move and generate energy? Can they communicate? How do they know when and how to grow and divide? These are just a few questions which will be explored in cellular biology.
Cellular biology is yet another core theme that encompasses a whole range of topics that will definitely be explored in a Biology degree. It involves studying cellular structures and their functions in more detail than you will have previously encountered. For example, you may look at the fascinating ‘endosymbiosis hypothesis’, which explains how mitochondria and chloroplasts evolved from prokaryotes. Obviously, there is constantly a huge range of processes going on in cells, with many cells possessing specialised features that help them carry out certain functions. In cellular biology, you will begin to study many of these processes and understand what functions they have, and which organelles or subcellular compartments are involved.
And don’t forget, cellular biology is not restricted to animal and plant cells. You will also have the opportunity to learn about the diverse world of protozoan, fungal, bacterial and archaeal cells.
Remember, biology is as much about practical skills as it is about theory. In fact, these skills are needed to make new discoveries and build on pre-existing theories, so never underestimate the importance of laboratory methods! Some of these practical techniques include using microscopes and differential staining to observe specific cellular structures and investigating the effect of different conditions, like temperature, pH and osmolarity, on cells.
The breadth and importance of genetics are impossible to put down on paper. It is quite literally the essence of all living organisms, from humans to chimpanzees to bacterial pathogens to SARS-CoV-2 (although whether viruses are living is a contentious subject of debate!).
Understanding and studying genetics is necessary for a range of Biology-related fields. From a human health perspective, it explains genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis, but also determines an individual’s predisposition to common conditions such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Genetics forms the basis of a relatively new practice known as ‘personalised medicine’ which involves looking at an individual’s genetic profile to identify the best preventative measures and targeted therapeutics for them. Aside from these non-communicable diseases, looking at an individual’s genetic make-up can tell us about their susceptibility to getting severely ill from infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.
Genetics also plays a key role in microbiology. For example, sequencing bacterial genomes tell scientists which antibiotics the bacteria are resistant to, what the mechanism of resistance is and how the genetic information responsible for resistance is transmitted between bacteria. In the case of COVID-19, sequencing the virus informs us of the occurrence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants but also led to the development of diagnostic tests and vaccines.
Another example where genetics is important is evolution. Looking at the DNA sequences of different species, both alive and extinct, can tell us about their common ancestry, migration patterns and other features of a population’s history.
Ultimately, studying genetics in your degree is essential for understanding organisms at the molecular, individual and population levels.
Evolution is a process that affects all living organisms so understanding how and why it occurs is really useful in a range of biological contexts. The subject of evolution encompasses a huge range of themes and therefore can be studied from a range of perspectives.
In a biology degree, you will learn the various mechanisms of evolution and apply these to other topics, from ecology to psychology to microbiology. The study of evolution also overlaps with genetics, molecular biology and behavioural sciences so there is a good chance you will cover these topics from an evolutionary perspective. Some degrees may explore the field of vertebrate evolution, which will involve looking at fossils, phylogenetic trees, modern animals and even embryos to understand how the complex story of all vertebrates evolved from a common ancestor and came to live on land. The amazing story of human evolution is another broad subject that you might come across when you study biology.
Understanding the relationship between humans, other organisms, and their surrounding environment has never been more important as the awareness and threat of numerous environmental issues continues to grow. These interactions, known as ecology, will undoubtedly be taught in any biology degree.
There are many specific branches of ecology, ranging from conservation ecology to human/animal behavioural ecology to marine ecology and even microbial ecology. Exactly which branches you will have the opportunity to study depends on the institution, its specialities, and the work your lecturer does outside of teaching.
Generally speaking, studying ecology allows for a visualisation of how theoretical models of ecological community structure and dynamics are presented in real life. Students will learn how to apply theoretical knowledge to practical sessions as well as develop the skills needed to design an experiment or a survey. This is done through learning about the main principles of experimental design in real-world scenarios, different forms of sampling techniques, as well as through experience by being able to co-design several experiments.
You could expect certain ecology-related coursework to involve some fieldwork, whereby the hands-on exposure gained from these experiences allow for the application of different sampling techniques using proper field equipment and technology (such as levelling equipment and submersible data loggers). Meanwhile, students may also get the opportunity to apply their experimental design knowledge through using this experience by applying sampling techniques and measures to ensure a lack of biased data in their fieldwork. Besides that, ecology students will also learn about the importance of statistical analysis and how to analyse, format, and present data collected from fieldwork.
The development of various new genomic technologies has meant scientists can now generate huge amounts of data which can be incredibly useful to their research. However, new storage and analysis techniques are required to deal with this data before it can be useful. That is where bioinformatics comes in.
This interdisciplinary field combines computer sciences, biology, mathematical and even physics, allowing data to be stored and interpreted. Studying bioinformatics in your degree will give you an introduction to the range of different software available to deal with different types of data and perform various functions. For example, you may learn how to search for the DNA sequence for a specific gene and convert it to a 3D protein image, or how the SARS-CoV-2 genome can be analysed to identify specific sequences (known as primers) needed for PCR-based diagnostics. These are only a few examples and bioinformatics is a huge field and rapidly growing, so the exact techniques you could study will depend on the university.
Plant sciences is an integral aspect of biology. There are broad applications within this field, with the most obvious being agriculture. Students who opt to study plant biology will gain insight into plant genetics and epigenetics and how they both influence the development of a plant.
For instance, the ABC model of floral development will inform the students of how genetic patterning within the plant meristem influences floral development. Furthermore, how the environment impacts the development of plants will be elaborated on through the study of the root tropisms (where roots will grow towards or away from environmental stimuli) and vernalization (where a period of cold induces the initiation of the flowering process in plants).
When studying plant sciences, you can also expect the immunology of plants to be covered. In specific, plant immunology is the study of how plants defend themselves from infections and it is an expanding field as climate change makes infection spread increasingly unpredictable. Meanwhile, in contrast to animals, plants do not have an adaptive immune system, their defences are centred around an innate response. So, students may expect to learn the similarities and differences between animal and plant immunity and the mechanisms that plants exclusively have evolved to defend against foreign threats.
The applications of these fundamental principles of plant development have been used to enhance plant growth and yield of specific desirable traits within agriculture. This is highly sought after to increase the efficiency of farming. Breeding methods (within the EU) and genetically modified organisms (GMO) in countries such as the USA and Brazil use our current knowledge of plant genetics and immunology to enhance the yield and disease resistance of crops. Examples will be studied of where these have been used to enhance crop yield and disease resistance, such as in developing potatoes resistant to potato blight.
The uses of plants in day-to-day life are not limited to agricultural food production. Their production of oxygen via photosynthesis is integral to our atmosphere and is a key biological phenomenon that is currently being explored to counter the rising carbon dioxide levels. Plants are investigated for their potential uses in energy production and these uses will be learnt by students studying Plant Sciences. For example, algal biofuels were investigated as a source of “green energy” production as through their photosynthetic fixation of carbon dioxide they can produce diesel and bioethanol. As well as the applied aspects of plant biology in agriculture and energy production, their fundamental growth and development are important to study and understand because of intricate interactions with environmental signals and surrounding organisms which inform us further on the structure of our surrounding ecosystem.
Studying the processes performed by the immune system tells us how it protects us from infectious and non-infectious diseases, but also how it can go wrong and cause diseases (e.g., autoimmune diseases like type-1 diabetes and lupus) and allergies.
A Biology degree will give you the chance to learn about the immune system in quite some detail. This will include exploring the biology and roles of the different immune cells and also the different arms of the immune system. Understanding these principles of immunology allows us to answer questions about how our body reacts to microscopic bacterial and viral infections as well as macroscopic worm infections. Once you are familiar with these basics, you will be able to begin exploring how this knowledge can be applied in a range of medical contexts. For example, how can worms be used to treat coeliac disease or T cells reprogrammed to fight cancer cells?
Many of the topics mentioned above generally make up the core of an undergraduate biology degree in the majority of universities. However, the details of this will vary from university to university so it’s important to check out websites for the biology degree at specific institutions to check if what they offer suits you.
In addition to these basic (often compulsory) subjects, most courses will give you the opportunity to begin choosing modules later on in your degree. This will be your chance to begin specialising on what interests you the most or stick to studying a range of themes if you haven’t decided yet. Whichever you prefer, universities will offer a wide range of optional modules.
Here are a few examples to provide you with some context, but do remember that these options may vary depending on the university!
Stem cells, ageing, regenerative medicine
Parasitology and vector biology
Gene expression and regulation
Advanced cellular biology
Plant symbiosis and disease
Skills you are likely to develop
In your modules, the content will teach you theoretical aspects of various biology topics. Alongside this, laboratory work will allow you to put the theory into practice whilst learning key techniques that are used to study the processes and systems you have learnt about. In wet labs, biological substances, drugs, chemicals, liquids and other reagents are used whereas dry labs involve using computer software to analyse data or generate models and simulations.
Some of the key laboratory techniques used in wet labs include:
Molecular cloning (cloning DNA into a vector)
Gel electrophoresis (a method used to separate DNA, RNA or proteins)
Northern, Southern, and Western blotting (a technique used to detect specific RNA, DNA or proteins in a sample, respectively)
ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay)
PCR (polymerase chain reaction)
Practical skills are also essential for “macrobiology” (i.e. ecology, biodiversity, and conservation). In fieldwork, you will learn and practice methods used by ecologists to study the environment and organisms living in it. Examples of this include:
Monitoring terrestrial and marine habitats
Collecting data about species distribution and abundance
However, practical techniques are just one stage in the larger process of the “scientific method”….
First of all, experimental design is a critical step that precedes any actual experimental work. This involves proposing a hypothesis and then determining how it can be tested. When planning an experiment, there are lots of factors that need to be considered. For example, what are the controls and variables? Is the experiment repeatable and reproducible? What are the potential risks?
During your practical work, you will collect data that will need to be analysed and interpreted. This often involves performing statistical tests and finding the best way to present your data.
All of these steps may seem quite overwhelming now, but one of the main objectives of a biology degree is to help you become familiar with the process so eventually, you can plan and perform your own research! Developing these core scientific skills will support you in a future career, whether it is in science or outside of the field.
Alongside practical and theoretical work, many modules will allow you to acquire broader skills which, again, will prove incredibly useful both inside and outside of biology.
An example of this is that various computer software can assist in data analysis and handling, making presentations- using these will build up your overall computer literacy (a very attractive skill for employers!). Some different software that you may learn about and use include:
Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint)
NCBI BLAST: a programme for analysing and comparing DNA, RNA and amino acid sequences
R: a programming language for statistical computing
PyMol: a software for molecular visualisation (e.g. viewing 3D protein structures)
PopG Genetic Simulation Programme: a programme that simulates evolution to allow you to see the effects of natural selection, mutation, migration and genetic drift
In addition to these technical skills, being a biologist also requires excellent soft skills, which will be particularly useful when it comes to applying for professional roles. As you complete work individually and in a team to write dissertations, read and review literature, present research, plan experiments and much more, you will definitely strengthen soft skills, such as those listed below:
Interpersonal and collaborative skills
These are important for scientists as they spend a significant amount of their time working in a team with other academics.
Scientists need to be able to communicate their work to others in an appealing manner, either to share results or to attract interest and funding. This communication could be in the form of scientific posters, presentations, scientific papers and research proposals. You will practice preparing these yourselves throughout your degree to develop your oral and written communication skills.
Organization, time management, and independence
An undergraduate degree is quite different to school in that it requires students to work more independently and proactively. It is important to manage your time well so you can meet deadlines and stay on top of your studies whilst taking part in extracurricular activities and enjoying university life!
Research and analytical skills
As you develop as a biologist throughout your degree, you will quickly move away from relying on textbooks and will begin to use literature (that is, research papers and reviews published in scientific journals) as a source of information. Biology, and all of science, is constantly growing and changing as new findings are made so it is important to be able to research a topic using literature so you can get to grips with what the subject is about, but also what the latest developments are, whether there are any controversies in the field and what work has yet to be done. Obviously, this requires excellent research and analytical skills. Being able to critically analyse your own work, as well as the work of others to draw conclusions and establish what could have been done better, is something you will improve at throughout your degree.
Biology is not all complex equations and calculations, but certain maths skills are required, whether it is performing statistical tests and data analysis or determining the volumes of reagents required for an experiment. Mathematical biology will be incorporated throughout your modules and practical work so you will have the opportunity to regularly practice these skills.
This is a really important skill that can be applied in biology and beyond it. Problems will crop up all the time and this is completely normal, but scientists need to be able to think of a potential solution when this happens. Imagine you get extremely unexpected results from an experiment you need to ask: what could have gone wrong? Can I modify the method and try again? What alternative method could I use?
Another widely applicable skill that you will develop in many scenarios throughout your degree. Being creative when sharing your work through presentations or posters will make it more appealing and interesting to your audience. Creativity also goes hand-in-hand with problem-solving; when a problem arises, thinking outside of the box is more likely to lead to a viable solution.
Why is Biology so important?
The modules and subjects you might study in a Biology degree have hopefully painted a picture of Biology being an incredibly diverse and extensive subject. As the study of living organisms, Biology really is all around us. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some examples illustrating why Biology is important.
The common cold, COVID-19, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease… Diseases, both infectious and non-communicable (non-infectious) undoubtedly affect us all. Elucidating the causes of these issues right down to the molecular level is critical for developing preventative and therapeutic measures. For infectious diseases, understanding the causative pathogen, its mechanism of transmission, its pathogenesis (how it causes disease) and our immune response can tell us how to control the spread of infection and can develop vaccines and drugs.
Alternatively, diseases can also be caused by our body not functioning as it should, such as the autoimmune disease type-1 diabetes. In this case, understanding how the body works when it’s healthy can often help us identify what is going wrong when it’s in a diseased state. Determining the genetic basis of these diseases can allow us to predict an individual’s susceptibility or even test for a disorder before symptoms have appeared.
Therefore, it is clear how learning about cellular biology, microbiology, immunology, stem cells, cancer biology, pharmacology and more can be really helpful in addressing the disease.
In recent years, environmental issues have become more important to the public, particular as they become worse and more frequent. Biology is at the forefront of these ecological problems. Take invasive species, habitat destruction, endangered plants and animals, climate change and even zoonotic diseases (diseases that have jumped from animals to humans). Biology can teach us what causes these issues and how we can go about solving them. For example, why are coral reefs turning white, and how can we stop this? How did conservationists increase the number of Florida panthers in the wild from less than three dozen to 180 in a few decades, and how can we grow the population even more?
Understanding the evolutionary history of humans and our relationship with other living organisms can ultimately help us understand what makes us human. Primate evolution can tell us why we have evolved the diet, physical traits and behavioural characteristics seen in humans. Studying human evolution can also have medical applications.
A fascinating example of this is how understanding the mismatch between our ancestor’s lifestyles and that of modern humans has increased our susceptibility to diseases like type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.
There are a number of fields that, perhaps surprisingly, rely on knowledge of biological concepts. Forensics, for example, uses biological techniques to analyse crime scenes and evidential objects to facilitate legal investigations. Policymakers are advised by biologists on a variety of issues, as exemplified throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and other epidemics. Epidemiological modelling, clinical trials and research into SARS-CoV-2 have, and will continue to, inform public health decisions. Science communication is also vital to ensure the public has access to factually correct information that helps them comprehend concepts like vaccination, immunity and the reproduction (R) number.
Addressing world problems
Millions of children are estimated to have died as a result of vitamin A deficiency, a condition that can also weaken the immune system, increase susceptibility to infection and cause blindness. Although preventable, the lack of nutrient-rich food in many developing countries meant vitamin A deficiency was, unfortunately, a common affliction. Knowledge of a biochemical pathway that produces beta-carotene (humans metabolise into vitamin A) meant the relevant genes could be engineered into the genome of normal rice. The resulting “Golden Rice” was an ingenious example where biology was applied to produce a ‘biofortified crop’ with the potential to prevent malnutrition.
Another exciting biological solution to a world issue is the potential to use bacteria to break down plastic. Both of these are exciting examples of synthetic biology; an exciting field that redesigns biological organisms or systems to give them new, beneficial functions. Without research into environmental bacteria, plants, DNA technology and the rest of the biological world around us, none of this would be possible. Looking to the future, there are many more examples like these, many discoveries waiting to be made which could have ground-breaking consequences.
How do I know if Biological Sciences is for me?
Biology isn’t a defined field because many aspects of Biology overlap with other subjects (think biophysics, biochemistry, mathematics, anthropology, journalism, business, and many more!). Work undertaken by biologists feeds into other fields, and vice versa, making Biology all the more important, complex and exciting.
It’s hard to list all the aspects of life that Biology plays a role in, but it’s clear that there’s a lot. Because Biology, and all the themes it encompasses, are applicable to a huge range of issues, studying a degree in Biology opens up loads of job opportunities. Firstly, this is because the subjects you’ll learn can be applied in many different careers and, secondly, because the skills you will acquire will stand you in good stead for almost any role that comes your way.
But, most importantly, you should enjoy what you are studying. Biology is an intriguing subject that allows you to choose a path for yourself based on your own passions and curiosities.