What is Biophysics?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Biophysics is a branch of the sciences which applies chemistry and physics to the study of living organisms. For example, a biophysicist might explore cell signaling, in which cells transmit chemicals to each other to stimulate various responses. This field is extremely varied, with a number of applications, and new topics in biophysics are constantly being developed and discussed by researchers and other professionals in the field.

Radioactive contamination control and treatment is a key sub-specialty of biophysics.
Radioactive contamination control and treatment is a key sub-specialty of biophysics.

In molecular biophysics, researchers study topics at the molecular level, including the structure and function of molecules. Molecules are the building blocks of complex organisms, making the study of molecules important to people who want to understand how entire organisms work. Molecular systems are also very complicated and interconnected, furnishing a huge number of topics for study and exploration, and often one discovery uncovers a multitude of new questions.

Biophysics focuses on the interactions of the cellular systems, such as that of DNA and RNA, as well as what the regulation of those interactions mean.
Biophysics focuses on the interactions of the cellular systems, such as that of DNA and RNA, as well as what the regulation of those interactions mean.

In physiological biophysics, also known as classical biophysics, researchers apply physics to questions like how animals move and interact with their surrounding environment. Research can explore things like how animals interact physically with each other, and how organisms interact with water, sand, and other media. These researchers also explore physical systems within organisms, such as the physics of the musculoskeletal system.

Radiation biophysics is a branch of this field which looks specifically at the relationship between living organisms and radioactive materials. It includes research on radiation exposure, how radiation can be used beneficially, and how organisms respond to various radioactive materials. Topics of interest include radiation-induced mutations, cell death caused by radiation, and systemic issues like radiation sickness.

Theoretical biophysics relies on theory and mathematics to explore how living organisms are constructed, how they function, how the interact, and why they develop in the ways that they do. This field is often highly interdisciplinary, studying everything from the molecular to the ecosystem level to learn more about the natural world and the ways in which it functions. There is usually a sound scientific and rational basis for a natural phenomenon, and theoretical biophysics aims to find these explanations and explore them.

Researchers in biophysics often have doctoral degrees and have completed postdoctoral work. This work can be very interesting, especially for people who like to work with the latest lab technology, such as crystallography equipment to explore the structure of cells. It requires a high level of discipline and attention to detail, along with curiosity about the world and the science behind the natural environment.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@mirima98 - Medical biophysics still has a long way to go before we can triumphantly declare we have created life.

That day will be when they create the bacteria plus the synthetic DNA-everything from scratch. Why we can’t do that, I don’t know. I don’t think life even at the cellular level is as simple as some people think.


@miriam98 - I remember that news story, but if I recall correctly, they didn’t actually create life. I think the experiment you are referring to involved inserting synthetic DNA into existing bacteria.

The bacteria acted as host to the synthetic DNA, and became self-replicating in the process. Nobody created the bacteria.

So if anything these scientists just created a hybrid life form, kind of like what happens in cross-breeding or cross-pollination.


@David09 - Scientists have already created life at the cellular level; it was some self-replicating DNA or something like that.


I wonder if researchers in biophysical chemistry, looking at life at the molecular level, have been able to come with an answer to mankind’s most enduring question: what is life?

I realize that there may be a clinical answer to this question that invokes references to DNA and chromosomes but I’ve never been satisfied with any of the answers I’ve heard.

More specifically, I’d like to know if scientists can answer the next question: is it possible to create life?

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