Biology (from Greek βίος λόγος, see below) is the study of life. It is concerned with the characteristics, classification, and behaviors of organisms, how species come into existence, and the interactions they have with each other and with the natural environment. Biology encompasses a broad spectrum of academic fields that are often viewed as independent disciplines. However, together they address phenomena related to living organisms (biological phenomena) over a wide range of scales, from biophysics to ecology. All concepts in biology are subject to the same laws that other branches of science obey, such as the laws of thermodynamics and conservation of energy.
At the organism level, biology has partially explained interesting phenomena such as birth, growth, aging, death and decay of living organisms, similarities between offspring and their parents (heredity) and flowering of plants which have puzzled humanity throughout history. Other phenomena, such as lactation, metamorphosis, egg-hatching, healing, and tropism have been addressed. On a wider scale of time and space, biologists have studied domestication of animals and plants, the wide variety of living organisms (biodiversity), changes in living organisms over many generations (evolution), extinction, speciation, social behaviour among animals, etc.
While botany encompasses the study of plants, zoology is the branch of science that is concerned about the study of animals and anthropology is the branch of biology which studies human beings. However, at the molecular scale, life is studied in the disciplines of molecular biology, biochemistry, and molecular genetics. More fundamental than these fields is biophysics which deals with energy within biological systems. At the next level, that of the cell, it is studied in cell biology. At the multicellular scale, it is examined in physiology, anatomy, and histology. Developmental biology studies life at the level of an individual organism's development or ontogeny. Moving up the scale towards more than one organism, genetics considers how heredity works between parent and offspring. Ethology considers the behaviour of organisms in their natural environment. Population genetics looks at the level of an entire population, and systematics considers the multi-species scale of lineages. Interdependent populations and their habitats are examined in ecology and evolutionary biology. A speculative new field is astrobiology (or xenobiology), which examines the possibility of life beyond the Earth, and contains the field of Gravitational biology, which is the study of the effect of gravity on living organisms.
Biology does not usually describe systems in terms of objects which obey immutable physical laws described by mathematics. Biological systems have predictable statistical tendencies to behave in certain ways, but these tendencies are usually not as concrete as those described in subjects such as physics. However, biology is still subject to the same physical laws of the universe such as thermodynamics and conservation of mass.
Universality: Biochemistry, cells, and the genetic code
Some striking examples of biological universality include life's carbon-based biochemistry and its ability to pass on characteristics via genetic material, using a DNA and RNA based genetic code with only minor variations across all living things.
The central organizing concept in biology is that all life has a common origin and has changed and developed through the process of evolution (see Common descent). This has led to the striking similarity of units and processes discussed in the previous section. Charles Darwin established evolution as a viable theory by articulating its driving force, natural selection (Alfred Russel Wallace is recognized as the co-discoverer of this concept). Genetic drift was embraced as an additional mechanism of evolutionary development in the modern synthesis of the theory.
The evolutionary history of a species— which describes the characteristics of the various species from which it descended— together with its genealogical relationship to every other species is called its phylogeny. Widely varied approaches to biology generate information about phylogeny. These include the comparisons of DNA sequences conducted within molecular biology or genomics, and comparisons of fossils or other records of ancient organisms in paleontology. Biologists organize and analyze evolutionary relationships through various methods, including phylogenetics, phenetics, and cladistics (The major events in the evolution of life, as biologists currently understand them, are summarized on this evolutionary timeline).
Ever since its articulation by Darwin and Wallace, the theory of evolution by natural selection has come under attack by people who disagree with scientific findings or interpretations regarding the origins and diversity of life, generally favoring instead religious explanations. See Creation-evolution controversy for more information.
Classification is the province of the disciplines of systematics and taxonomy. Taxonomy places organisms in groups called taxa, while systematics seeks to define their relationships with each other. This classification technique has evolved to reflect advances in cladistics and genetics, shifting the focus from physical similarities and shared characteristics to phylogenetics.
Traditionally, living things have been divided into five kingdoms:
However, many scientists now consider this five-kingdom system to be outdated. Modern alternative classification systems generally begin with the three-domain system:
These domains reflect whether the cells have nuclei or not, as well as differences in the cell exteriors.
Further, each kingdom is broken down continuously until each species is separately classified. The order is 1) Kingdom, 2) Phylum, 3) Class, 4) Order, 5) Family, 6) Genus, 7) Species. The scientific name of an organism is obtained from its Genus and Species. For example, humans would be listed as Homo sapiens. Homo would be the Genus and Sapiens is the species. Whenever writing the scientific name of an organism it is proper to capitalize the first letter in the genus and put all of the species in lowercase; in addition the entire term would be put in italics. The term used for classification is called Taxonomy.
Up into the 19th century, it was commonly believed that life forms could appear spontaneously under certain conditions (see abiogenesis). This misconception was challenged by William Harvey's diction that "all life [is] from [an] egg" (from the Latin "Omne vivum ex ovo"), a foundational concept of modern biology. It simply means that there is an unbroken continuity of life from its initial origin to the present time.
A group of organisms shares a common descent if they share a common ancestor. All organisms on the Earth have been and are descended from a common ancestor or an ancestral gene pool. This last universal common ancestor of all organisms is believed to have appeared about 3.5 billion years ago. Biologists generally regard the universality of the genetic code as definitive evidence in favor of the theory of universal common descent (UCD) for all bacteria, archaea, and eukaryotes (see: origin of life).
Homeostasis is the ability of an open system to regulate its internal environment to maintain a stable condition by means of multiple dynamic equilibrium adjustments controlled by interrelated regulation mechanisms. All living organisms, whether unicellular or multicellular, exhibit homeostasis. Homeostasis manifests itself at the cellular level through the maintenance of a stable internal acidity (pH); at the organismic level, warm-blooded animals maintain a constant internal body temperature; and at the level of the ecosystem, as when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise and plants are theoretically able to grow healthier and remove more of the gas from the atmosphere. Tissues and organs can also maintain homeostasis.
Every living thing interacts with other organisms and its environment. One reason that biological systems can be difficult to study is that so many different interactions with other organisms and the environment are possible, even on the smallest of scales. A microscopic bacterium responding to a local sugar gradient is responding to its environment as much as a lion is responding to its environment when it searches for food in the African savannah. For any given species, behaviors can be co-operative, aggressive, parasitic or symbiotic. Matters become more complex when two or more different species interact in an ecosystem. Studies of this type are the province of ecology.
Biology has become such a vast research enterprise that it is not generally regarded as a single discipline, but as a number of clustered sub-disciplines. This article considers four broad groupings. The first group consists of those disciplines that study the basic structures of living systems: cells, genes etc.; the second group considers the operation of these structures at the level of tissues, organs, and bodies; the third group considers organisms and their histories; the final constellation of disciplines focuses on their interactions. It is important to note, however, that these boundaries, groupings, and descriptions are a simplified characterization of biological research. In reality, the boundaries between disciplines are fluid, and most disciplines frequently borrow techniques from each other. For example, evolutionary biology leans heavily on techniques from molecular biology to determine DNA sequences, which assist in understanding the genetic variation of a population; and physiology borrows extensively from cell biology in describing the function of organ systems. Ethology and comparative psychology extend biology to the analysis of animal behavior and mental characteristics, whilst Evolutionary psychology proposes that the field of psychology, including in regard to humans, is a branch of biology.
Structure of life
Molecular biology is the study of biology at a molecular level. This field overlaps with other areas of biology, particularly with genetics and biochemistry. Molecular biology chiefly concerns itself with understanding the interactions between the various systems of a cell, including the interrelationship of DNA, RNA, and protein synthesis and learning how these interactions are regulated.
Cell biology studies the physiological properties of cells, as well as their behaviors, interactions, and environment. This is done both on a microscopic and molecular level. Cell biology researches both single-celled organisms like bacteria and specialized cells in multicellular organisms like humans.
Understanding cell composition and how they function is fundamental to all of the biological sciences. Appreciating the similarities and differences between cell types is particularly important in the fields of cell and molecular biology. These fundamental similarities and differences provide a unifying theme, allowing the principles learned from studying one cell type to be extrapolated and generalized to other cell types.
Genetics is the science of genes, heredity, and the variation of organisms. In modern research, genetics provides important tools in the investigation of the function of a particular gene, or the analysis of genetic interactions. Within organisms, genetic information generally is carried in chromosomes, where it is represented in the chemical structure of particular DNA molecules.
Genes encode the information necessary for synthesizing proteins, which in turn play a large role in influencing (though, in many instances, not completely determining) the final phenotype of the organism.
Developmental biology studies the process by which organisms grow and develop. Originating in embryology, modern developmental biology studies the genetic control of cell growth, differentiation, and "morphogenesis," which is the process that gives rise to tissues, organs, and anatomy. Model organisms for developmental biology include the round worm Caenorhabditis elegans, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, the zebrafish Brachydanio rerio, the mouse Mus musculus, and the weed Arabidopsis thaliana.
Physiology of organisms
Physiology studies the mechanical, physical, and biochemical processes of living organisms by attempting to understand how all of the structures function as a whole. The theme of "structure to function" is central to biology. Physiological studies have traditionally been divided into plant physiology and animal physiology, but the principles of physiology are universal, no matter what particular organism is being studied. For example, what is learned about the physiology of yeast cells can also apply to human cells. The field of animal physiology extends the tools and methods of human physiology to non-human species. Plant physiology also borrows techniques from both fields.
Anatomy is an important branch of physiology and considers how organ systems in animals, such as the nervous, immune, endocrine, respiratory, and circulatory systems, function and interact. The study of these systems is shared with medically oriented disciplines such as neurology and immunology.
Diversity and evolution of organisms
Evolutionary biology is concerned with the origin and descent of species, as well as their change over time, and includes scientists from many taxonomically-oriented disciplines. For example, it generally involves scientists who have special training in particular organisms such as mammalogy, ornithology, or herpetology, but use those organisms as systems to answer general questions about evolution. Evolutionary biology is mainly based on paleontology, which uses the fossil record to answer questions about the mode and tempo of evolution, as well as the developments in areas such as population genetics and evolutionary theory. In the 1990s, developmental biology re-entered evolutionary biology from its initial exclusion from the modern synthesis through the study of evolutionary developmental biology. Related fields which are often considered part of evolutionary biology are phylogenetics, systematics, and taxonomy.
The two major traditional taxonomically-oriented disciplines are botany and zoology. Botany is the scientific study of plants. Botany covers a wide range of scientific disciplines that study the growth, reproduction, metabolism, development, diseases, and evolution of plant life. Zoology involves the study of animals, including the study of their physiology within the fields of anatomy and embryology. The common genetic and developmental mechanisms of animals and plants is studied in molecular biology, molecular genetics, and developmental biology. The ecology of animals is covered under behavioral ecology and other fields.
Classification of life
The dominant classification system is called Linnaean taxonomy, which includes ranks and binomial nomenclature. How organisms are named is governed by international agreements such as the International Code of Botanical Nomenclature (ICBN), the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), and the International Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (ICNB). A fourth Draft BioCode was published in 1997 in an attempt to standardize naming in these three areas, but it has yet to be formally adopted. The Virus cInternational Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature (ICVCN) remains outside the BioCode.
Interactions of organisms
Ecology studies the distribution and abundance of living organisms, and the interactions between organisms and their environment. The environment of an organism includes both its habitat, which can be described as the sum of local abiotic factors such as climate and geology, as well as the other the organisms that share its habitat. Ecological systems are studied at several different levels, from individuals and populations to ecosystems and the biosphere. As can be surmised, ecology is a science that draws on several disciplines.
Ethology studies animal behavior (particularly of social animals such as primates and canids), and is sometimes considered a branch of zoology. Ethologists have been particularly concerned with the evolution of behavior and the understanding of behavior in terms of the theory of natural selection. In one sense, the first modern ethologist was Charles Darwin, whose book The expression of the emotions in animals and men influenced many ethologists.
Formed by combining the Greek βίος (bios), meaning 'life', and λόγος (logos), meaning 'study of', the word "biology" in its modern sense seems to have been introduced independently by Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus (Biologie oder Philosophie der lebenden Natur, 1802) and by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (Hydrogéologie, 1802). The word itself is sometimes said to have been coined in 1800 by Karl Friedrich Burdach, but it appears in the title of Volume 3 of Michael Christoph Hanov's Philosophiae naturalis sive physicae dogmaticae: Geologia, biologia, phytologia generalis et dendrologia, published in 1766.
Major discoveries in biology include:
|Topics related to biology (Category)|
|People and history||Biologist - Notable biologists - History of biology - Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine - Timeline of biology and organic chemistry - List of geneticists and biochemists|
|Institutions, publications||NASA Ames Research Center - Bachelor of Science - Publications|
|Terms and phrases||Omne vivum ex ovo - In vivo - In vitro - In utero - In silico|
|Related disciplines||Medicine (Physician) - Physical anthropology - Environmental science - Life Sciences - Biotechnology|
|Outstanding problems||Origin of life - Unsolved problems in biology|
|Other||List of technologies - List of conservation topics|
- Lynn Margulis, Five Kingdoms: An Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 3rd ed., St. Martin's Press, 1997, paperback, ISBN 0-8050-7252-7 (many other editions)
- Guenther Witzany, Natural history of life: History of communication logics and dynamics, S.E.E.D. Journal 5(1): 27-55.
- Neil Campbell, Biology (7th edition), Benjamin-Cummings Publishing Company, 2004, hardcover, ISBN 0-8053-7146-X
- Johnson George B. 2005 "Biology, Visualizing Life." Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. ISBN 0-03-016723-X
- Biology Online: Major biology forum, dictionary and collection of tutorials and articles.
- NCBI Open-Access Books
- PhyloCode, http://www.ohiou.edu/phylocode/index.html
- The Tree of Life: A multi-authored, distributed Internet project containing information about phylogeny and biodiversity.
- BioOne Bioscience research journals.
- MIT video lecture series on biology
- Fondation Mérieux Promoting scientific information in Medical Biology.
- PLos Biology A peer-reviewed, open-access journal published by the Public Library of Science
- International Journal of Biological Sciences A biological journal publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers of significance
- Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
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