If you were in school, you may have had to take a course called “Life Science 101” or something similar. You may have seen textbooks about life science without ever knowing what it meant. After all, what is life science?
Life Science is a vast field of study that examines every living thing on Earth. From bacteria to begonias to beluga whales-Life Sciences aims to learn everything about life on this planet. Read on to learn more about this field and everything it encompasses.
What Is Life Science?
As the name suggests, Life Science studies life in all its forms, past and present. This can include plants, animals, viruses and bacteria, single-celled organisms, and even cells. Life science studies the biology of how these organisms live, which is why you may hear this group of specialties referred to as biology.
As you might expect, with an estimated 8.7 million animal species, about 400,000 plant species, and countless bacterial and viral species, there are many different life forms to study. Many life science researchers specialize in one class or organism, and some specialties like zoology have even more sub-specialties. There are more than thirty different branches of life science, but we will review some of the major branches here.
Ecology looks at the interactions between organisms and their environment. This can include topics such as the food chain, parasitic and beneficial relationships, and relationships within species. Ecology also examines things like biodiversity, organism population numbers, and distribution of those organisms.
In fact, ecology aims to provide an overall picture of how ecosystems function. These systems are complex, dynamic webs of life that are constantly changing and maintaining a delicate balance without which the system would collapse. This ecosystem could be as large as an entire rainforest or as small as a pond in Minnesota.
Botany studies is a branch of biology (pun intended) that deals with plants. Everything from lichens, grasses, and other groundcovers to towering redwoods falls under the realm of botany. It may also include fungi and algae that are distinct from other plant species.
Botany is one of those subclasses of biology that has its own subdivisions. Some scientists focus on plant biochemistry, while others study plant ecology, a branch that lies somewhere between botany and ecology. Other subdivisions include plant genetics, evolution, physiology, and anatomy and morphology.
While botany focuses on the plant kingdom, zoology looks at the animal kingdom. It studies characteristics of various animals, including their behavior, breeding, migration patterns, habitats, and more. It also works to identify new species; Of the estimated 8.7 million animal species on Earth, we only know about 1.2 million species.
As with ecology and botany, zoology crosses with several other disciplines, including paleontology, entomology, and genetics. Different zoologists focus on different types of animals, including birds, reptiles, mammals, fish and more. There are more than half a dozen subfields of zoology.
Entomology is the study of all the creepy crawly things of the world. This field officially studies insects, but can also study arachnids, myriapods, worms, snails and slugs. This could be considered a branch of zoology, since insects technically fall into the animal kingdom.
Of the 1.2 million species we know of, insects make up nearly 900,000 species. They date back at least 400 million years (far older than the oldest dinosaurs) and are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth.
Microbiology looks at some of the smallest living things – single-celled organisms or small-celled colonies. This can include bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other tiny organisms that live everywhere in and within us. In the past, microbiology was one of the most difficult fields to study because it was so difficult to get a clear picture of the subjects.
For example, viruses have both perished and been driven out of the field of microbiology. It’s hard to nail down a particular definition of life, and viruses are one of those things that like to play jump rope with that line. And that is to say nothing of the 99 percent of microorganisms that cannot be observed by traditional methods.
Cell biology is even smaller than microbiology and looks at the living systems that exist in individual cells. That’s right; even the cells that make up your body have their own tiny ecosystems. Remember learning in ninth grade biology that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell?
Cell biology looks at the life processes of individual cells, including metabolic processes, reproduction, signaling pathways, and the chemical composition of the cell. This gives us a better idea of how life works on a larger scale. It is especially important in areas such as genetics and pharmacology.
While botany and zoology view organisms as being in their environment, physiology focuses on how these creatures stay alive. This includes organ systems, organs, cells, and molecules that carry out the chemical processes that support life. Physiology sees you not as a person interacting with the world around you or with a complex mental life, but as an intricate dance of chemical interactions that keeps you alive.
Physiology can look at any of the forms of life we have discussed. Plant -, animal -, human -, cellular and microbial physiology are all subsets of this field of study. Physiology is also closely related to epidemiology and pharmacology.
Although the study of DNA and the genome is relatively new, genetics is a field that dates back to Gregor Mendel and his pea plants. It studies how traits are passed on and how they adapt to the environment. Only in recent years have we understood exactly how this genetic inheritance happens.
With the discovery of DNA, genetics has expanded to include traits that we only think are genetically linked. Geneticists are writing life science articles investigating whether traits like addiction, cancer, talent, and other such things can be passed on genetically and how. In the future, we may even see genetic changes that could prevent cancer.
Epidemiology is a look at the life cycles of diseases. It may seem strange to think of something like the flu as being alive, but these diseases are made up of tiny living organisms. Epidemiology studies how they live, how they reproduce, how they affect humans, and how they die.
Epidemiology is the cornerstone of public health, studying disease outbreak patterns, developing treatments and cures, and developing vaccines against them. The more we know about how these organisms live, the more we can do to prevent them from making us sick. As you might expect, epidemiology and physiology are very closely related.
Paleontology looks at life that is no longer living. In particular, it studies dinosaurs and how they may have lived. It is based on the fossil record and the clues we can glean from these preserved remains.
Paleontology is something on the edge of biology, bumping up against geology. But while it involves close study of various rocks, paleontology aims to use those rocks to reconstruct a record of life that once existed on this planet. Paleontologists try to use dinosaur fossils to reverse engineer how they lived, what they looked like, and even how they died.
Marine biology can encompass many of the areas we’ve already mentioned here, with a big twist. Marine biology focuses on life in the oceans, from whales to fish to plankton and algae. It studies different ocean ecosystems, food chains, botany and more.
Part of the reason marine biology is so important is that most current theories hold that life on Earth began in our oceans. There are species still swimming around that were around in the time of the dinosaurs. There are also species that live at the bottom of the ocean that seem to defy the rules that normally govern life, so studying them can give us insight into more of the rules that govern all life on Earth.
These ten branches of the life sciences are just a few of dozens. Biotechnology, bioinformatics, and synthetic biology all study different facets of the connection between life and technology, a connection that is growing stronger. Astrobiology studies the origin and presence of life in the universe, including our own.
Biolinguistics focuses on the biology and evolution of language among all living species. Biomechanics and biophysics look at the way living things move in the world and what that can tell us about them. Developmental biology looks at the life cycles of various living things, beginning with zygotes and ending with mature adults.
Ethology and population biology look at our behavior and interaction in groups. Evolutionary biology and evolutionary developmental biology explore how we have evolved over the eons. Histology focuses on the tissues of living things, and immunology studies our immune system.
Neuroscience specializes in the nervous systems that control various animals. Pharmacology studies how drugs interact with our systems and aims to fight viruses and bacteria. Quantum biology studies quantum phenomena in living things, and structural biology examines how living things are put together.
Toxicology takes a look at chemicals and toxins and how they affect living things. Zymology explores fermentation. And theoretical biology focuses not on a specific biological field, but on abstractions and mathematical models that describe biological phenomena.
Why go into life science
The biggest reason to go into Life Science is the sheer breadth of study it offers. The study of every living thing in the universe, past and present, is a pretty gigantic field. Chances are you’ll find a particular field that piques your interest.
But even if you’re not considering a career as a scientist, it’s still a good idea to study life science. As it turns out, that life science project your fourth grade teacher gave you wasn’t pointless after all. It was a way to help you understand the world.
Life science explores every single part of our world – the oceans, the earth, the sky, the deserts, the tundra, the forests, the mountains. Knowing how life works on our planet can help you better appreciate the world we live in and how much we need to protect it. Wouldn’t you appreciate a pond you drive by every day if you knew the complexity of the systems in and around each part of it?
Life science can also reveal the wonder you have inside you. Life science tells us that our bones are made of stardust and that we carry universes and supernovas in every cell of our bodies. Without you ever knowing it, your body is doing a million tiny tasks a day, all so important to keeping you alive, and while all these tiny processes are going on, while you are bursting with an incomprehensible amount of life, you are walking down the street to your job just like any other day of your life.
Knowing how miraculous every living thing around us is can make us feel more connected to the world and the people around us.
Learn More About Life Science
Life Science is an enormous scientific field that aims to answer some of the most fundamental questions about us. It studies everything from the blue whale breaching the ocean surface for air, to the sugar ant crawling along a kitchen counter, to the bacteria that go through your digestive process. It looks at how we live, where we live, and how we could live better.