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Biophysics and Applcations

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[Rice University]


"Knowledge Isn't Free. You Have To Pay Attention."

-- Richard P. Freynman


- Overview

Biophysics is the branch of science that uses physical methods to study biological processes. Physics uses mathematical laws to explain the natural world, which can be applied to biological organisms and systems to gain insight into how they work.

Research in biophysics helps prevent and treat disease, advance drug development and create technologies that enable humans to live more sustainably and protect our changing environment.

During the first half of the 20th century, German scientists dominated biophysics. They study electromagnetic fields and light, and are primarily concerned with the effects of radiation on living things.

When Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger published What Is Life? Published in 1944. The book is based on a series of public lectures by Schrödinger explain biological processes through physics and chemistry. In it, he advances the idea that there is a molecule in an organism that contains genetic information in the form of a covalent bond. This inspired scientists such as James Watson and Francis Crick to find and characterize genetic molecules, and in 1953, with the help of Rosalind Franklin's X-ray crystallographic studies, discovered the double helix structure of DNA.


- The Applications of Biophysics

Biophysicists develop ways to overcome disease, end global hunger, generate renewable energy, design cutting-edge technologies, and solve countless scientific mysteries. In short, biophysicists are at the forefront of solving ancient and future problems of humanity. 

  • Data Analysis and Structure: Solved the structure of DNA using biophysics in 1953, a discovery that was crucial in showing how DNA is like the blueprint of life. We can now read the DNA sequences of thousands of people and various organisms. Biophysical techniques are also essential to analyze these massive data sets. 
  • Computer Modeling: Biophysicists develop and use computer modeling methods to see and manipulate the shape and structure of proteins, viruses and other complex molecules, as well as critical information needed to develop new drug targets, or understand how proteins mutate and cause tumor growth. 
  • Molecules in Motion: Biophysicists study how hormones move around cells and how cells communicate with each other. Using fluorescent tags, biophysicists have been able to make cells glow like fireflies under a microscope and learn about cells' complex internal transport systems.
  • Neuroscience: Biophysicists are building computer models called neural networks to mimic how the brain and nervous system work, leading to new understandings of how visual and auditory information is processed. 
  • Bioengineering, Nanotechnology, Biomaterials: Biophysics is also critical to understanding biomechanics and applying this information to designing better prosthetics and better nanomaterials for drug delivery. 
  • Imaging: Biophysicists have developed sophisticated diagnostic imaging techniques, including MRIs, CT scans and PET scans. Biophysics remains critical to developing safer, faster and more precise techniques to improve medical imaging and teach us more about the inner workings of our bodies. 
  • Medical Application: Biophysics is critical to the development of many life-saving treatments and devices, including kidney dialysis, radiation therapy, cardiac defibrillators, pacemakers and artificial heart valves. 
  • Ecosystem: Environmental biophysics measures and models aspects of the environment from the stratosphere to deep-sea vents. Environmental biophysicists study the diverse communities of microbes that inhabit every ecological niche on this planet, they track pollutants in the atmosphere, and they are looking for ways to convert algae into biofuels.

- How Important is Biophysics to the Advancement of Biology?

Biophysics discovers how atoms are arranged to work in DNA and proteins. Protein molecules carry out the body's chemical reactions. They push and pull on the muscles that move the limbs. Proteins make up the parts of your eyes, ears, nose and skin that sense your environment. They convert food into energy and light into vision. They provide immunity to disease. Proteins repair breakage inside cells and regulate growth. They fire electrical signals in your brain. They read the DNA blueprint in your body and copy the DNA for future generations. Biophysicists are exploring how proteins work. These mysteries are gradually being solved. 

To understand how a car works, you first need to know how the parts fit together. Now, thanks to biophysics, we know exactly where thousands of atoms are located in more than 50,000 different proteins. Every year, more than a million scientists and students from around the world, from physicists to medical practitioners, use these protein structures to discover how biological machines work in health and disease.


- Biophysics and Biochemistry

Biochemistry and biophysics, closely related fields, use tools from different sciences to study life. Specifically, biochemistry studies the chemical processes and transformations of organisms, while biophysics applies the theories and methods of physics to biological problems.

Physical chemistry is useful to biochemists because they use concepts including reaction energy, reaction probability, entropy, heat, phase transitions, chemical potential, and electrochemistry. Not only are these concepts useful (especially in scientific research), but they are beautiful!



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