A Guide to the Types of Biological Research
Published on: January 2, 2024
Even if you are keenly interested in biology and life sciences, you may be unfamiliar with the various research branches in these fields and the specific biological research topics that captivate scientists today. After offering some fundamental information about the vital research of biologists, this guide highlights 18 different types of biological research.
Importance of Biological Research
If you’ve ever asked yourself a fundamental question about human, animal or plant life on this planet, a biologist has likely conducted a study to answer it. Few branches of science are broader or more varied than biology — an ancient yet vital scientific discipline that has led human beings to a far greater understanding of life in all its forms. Biology has also enabled us to make tremendous strides in terms of protecting and preserving life.
Fueled by critical scientific breakthroughs such as the discovery of DNA structure in the mid-1900s, research in biology has yielded countless medical discoveries that have both improved and saved the lives of countless people. From drug development to disease prevention, significant medical advances would not have come to be without extensive biological research.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of biological research. From supporting environmental conservation and sustainability to the growth of food and management of livestock, few areas of human advancement are left untouched by biologists and their work. The field has even answered many fundamental existential questions by uncovering the theory of evolution and generally advancing our understanding of the natural world.
18 Types of Biological Research
Today’s biology research topics are tackling some of the heaviest that humanity faces, including many that involve our very existence. Read on for brief introductions to fields of research that are shaping the future of biology as we know it.
1. Developmental Biology
Developmental biology focuses on how a life form develops. For example, a developmental biologist might study the ways in which a single-cell embryo divides into an organized group of cells that then become genetically “programmed” at specific stages for purposes and tasks. Although an organism’s DNA dictates much of its development, environmental factors also play a critical role. Beyond basic cellular function and differentiation, developmental biologists work on studies that focus on subjects such as the repair of damaged tissue and the broad clinical uses for stem cells.
2. Evolutionary Biology
Issues connected to molecular mechanisms of DNA are essential to the work of evolutionary biologists as well. However, this discipline is specifically concerned with the transfer of genetic information through generations. In addition to charting the biological adaptation and diversification of life throughout history and pre-history, evolutionary biology investigates the origin of life on Earth.
3. Computational Biology
Also known as “bioinformatics,” computational biology bridges the gap between biology and digital technology by developing and applying computational methods and software tools to analyze massive sets of biological information. The effective handling of big data can prove helpful when it comes to identifying and analyzing complex biological factors that range from genetic sequences to organism populations. To make accurate predictions and determine outcomes, computational biologists often use mathematical modeling and computer simulations.
4. Cellular Biology
True to its name, cellular biology concentrates on the cell as the fundamental unit of functional life on this planet. Cellular biology research may concern any or all aspects of cell anatomy and cell processes that range from respiration to mitotic and meiotic division. It is important to note that cellular biology, like many of the biology research specializations on this list, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, cellular biologists might perform research that involves genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology and numerous other related areas of study.
Like the vast majority of living things, human beings possess immune systems that protect us from pathogens as well as other foreign entities and substances that might enter our bodies and threaten our health. These immune systems are both innate (organisms are born with immune systems) and adaptive (immune systems respond to meet the changing needs of the organism). Medical Life Sciences News defines immunology as the branch of biological science that studies the body’s ability to recognize “what is self and what is not.” This recognition allows the body to attack pathogens to preserve its vital internal structures and processes. Some research in the field of immunology examines what happens when the body mistakes healthy cells for foreign invaders.
Whereas many branches of biological research look inward to study structures and processes within the organism, ecological research examines how living things function within their environments and interact with various environmental stimuli. Ecological researchers ask questions such as, “What is the relationship between organisms and their habitats?” and “What environmental elements allow different organisms to not only survive but also thrive?”
Succinctly defined by the Biophysical Society, biophysics is “the field that applies the theories and methods of physics to understand how biological systems work.” Furthermore, the field of biophysics bridges the gap between physics and diverse subbranches of biological study. Research projects in biophysics might investigate how molecules essential to life develop; how the various components of a cell interact; and how immune, nervous, circulatory and other bodily systems function. Beyond biology and physics, biophysical researchers may draw upon any number of other scientific disciplines including mathematics, engineering, chemistry and materials science.
Another biological field that intersects and overlaps with many others, physiology studies the mechanisms and functionality of living things. To better understand these mechanisms and their functions, physiological researchers commonly examine how component parts, such as organs and cells, operate internally and interact with one another. Although the technology and methodology used to conduct physiological study has grown by leaps and bounds over the years, this branch of science is among the oldest in the field of biology. In fact, the origins of physiology have been traced back to 420 BC or earlier.
As its name implies, biochemistry focuses on the intersection of biology and chemistry, specifically the chemical processes that occur within living things. Commonly conducted in a laboratory setting, biochemical researchers study the composition and structure of chemicals within organisms as well as the ways in which these chemicals react with one another, affect, and drive different biological processes. By optimizing healthy chemical reactions and correcting unhealthy ones, experts in this field can apply their research to a wide range of medical issues.
While most people understand that microbiologists conduct biological research at the microscopic level, fewer realize that they actually study microbes. Otherwise known as “microorganisms,” microbes are living organisms that are too small to see with the unaided eye. They include viruses, bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, prions and archaea. As the immunologist knows all too well, many microbes can prove dangerous and even fatal when they enter the human body. By identifying and analyzing these pathogens at the molecular level, microbiologists can develop ways to combat them. The Microbiology Society also lists “the manufacture of biofuels, cleaning up pollution and producing/processing food and drink” among microbiology’s most promising and effective applications.
Simply put, entomology is the study of insects. Although they are just one of four classes of arthropods (animals with exoskeletons), insects are tremendously important to human beings for a variety of reasons. A large concentration of research goes into controlling the harmful effects of insects in terms of food production and disease prevention. The Insecta class is also worth studying for its sheer size; the number of insects on the planet today far exceeds that of any other type of living thing. Though there are likely many insects left to be discovered, scientists have documented more than a million insect species to date. This means that insects alone comprise roughly 40 percent of all living species known to exist.
12. Structural Biology
Structural biology examines the structure, assembly, function and interaction of biological molecules. It is generally concerned with proteins because this particular class of molecules is so prevalent in living things, especially animals. For this reason, proteomics (the study of the biological proteins) comprises a great proportion of the structural biologist’s work. Many structural biology studies concentrate on identifying and addressing misshapen protein molecules that might lead to disease.
Because it provides a “blueprint” for building the molecules that comprise all life on Earth, DNA is essential in nearly all fields of biological study. As the study of genes and heredity, genetics examines the ways in which certain characteristics in living things pass through generations from parents to offspring. Genetic mutations can cause both dramatic improvements and dangerous deficits in the overall health and well-being of an organism. Genetic research can do everything from determining a person’s likelihood of developing a specific disease to creating therapeutic remedies for that disease.
Genomics is closely related to the field of genetics and often considered one of its subfields. But while classical genetics tends to study a single gene or gene expression at a time, genomics studies the genomes of organisms in their entirety. This was impossible before the advent of modern genome mapping technologies and techniques such as those employed by the Human Genome Project, which identified the precise order of the 3 billion DNA subunits that comprise the human genome.
Although zoologists often study human beings as part of the larger animal kingdom, they primarily study non-human animals, both domestic and wild. Zoology researchers might conduct wildlife studies for government agencies or nonprofit organizations. With specialized clinical training, these professionals can also conduct crucial veterinary research.
16. Marine Biology
You probably already knew that marine biologists deal with the underwater world — but did you know their areas of expertise are restricted to life in oceans and other saltwater environments? Although it doesn’t cover freshwater animals, if you want to “do a deep dive” on sea life, marine biology research may be the path for you. It is a rich and multifaceted field that can allow you to focus on specializations ranging from marine ecology to fishery science.
Just as the zoologist studies the animal kingdom, the botanist studies the plant kingdom. An equally wide and varied field, botany encompasses all aspects of plant life study including (per Biology Online), “morphology, anatomy, cell biology (branch dealing with plant cells), molecular biology, biochemistry, physiology (deals with phenomena related to plant growth), economic and ethnic aspects, taxonomy, environmental science, genetics, genomics, etc.”
18. Molecular Biology
A close cousin to structural biology and biochemistry, molecular biology examines the molecular basis for biological activity. Because all matter and living things are made of molecules, the molecular biologist can learn a great deal about living things by studying their molecules and how they interact. Most molecular biology studies concentrate on the molecules in proteins and genes.
Pursuing a Career in Biological Research
If you are interested in research topics in biology or training to become a biological researcher, a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biology is an excellent place to start. The BS in Biology program at Park University lays a solid foundation in biological research methods, techniques and instrumentation. Additionally, this program provides specialized study in botany, zoology, cellular biology, microbiology, physiology, genetics, ecology and other fields that made our list above.
To communicate directly with a Park University representative about the bachelor’s in biology or any other degree program, visit our official website to fill out a short online request form.