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The Scope of Biology

Biology has become such a vast research enterprise that it is not generally studied as a single discipline, but as a number of clustered sub-disciplines. We consider four broad groupings here. The first broad group consists of disciplines that study the basic structures of living systems: cells, genes etc., a second grouping considers the operation of these structures at the level of tissues, organs and bodies; a third grouping considers organisms and their histories; a final constellation of disciplines focuses on the interactions. It is important to note, however, that these boundaries and groupings and descriptions are a simplified description of biological research. In reality the boundaries between disciplines are very fluid and most disciplines borrow techniques from each other frequently. 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. 

The Structure of Life
Molecular biology is the study of biology at a molecular level. The field overlaps with other areas of biology, particularly 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 the composition of cells and how cells works is fundamental to all of the biological sciences. Appreciating the similarities and differences between cell types is particularly important to 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, e.g. 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, although, in many instances, do not completely determine, the final phenotype of the organism.

Developmental biology studies the process by which organisms grow and develop. Originating in embryology, today 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 the structures function as a whole. It has 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 cell can also apply to human cells. The field of animal physiology extends the tools and methods of human physiology to non-human animal species. Plant physiology also borrows techniques from both fields.

Anatomy is an important part 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 the medically oriented disciplines of neurology, immunology and the like.

Diversity and Evolution of Organisms
In population genetics the evolution of a population of organisms is sometimes depicted as if traveling on a fitness landscape. The arrows indicate the preferred flow of a population on the landscape, and the points A, B, and C are local optima. The red ball indicates a population that moves from a very low fitness value to the top of a peak.

Evolutionary biology is concerned with the origin and descent of species, as well as their change over time, i.e. their evolution. Evolutionary biology is an inclusive field because it includes scientists from many traditional taxonomically-oriented disciplines. For example, it generally includes scientists who may have a specialist training in particular organisms such as mammalogy, ornithology, or herpetology but use those organisms as systems to answer general questions in evolution. It also generally includes paleontologists who use fossils to answer questions about the mode and tempo of evolution, as well as theoreticians in areas such as population genetics and evolutionary theory. In the 1990s developmental biology made a re-entry into 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 is the discipline which involves the study of animals, which includes the physiology of animals is studied under various fields including 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 the three areas, but it does not appear to have yet been formally adopted. The International 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 like climate and geology, as well as the other organisms which share its habitat. Ecological systems are studied at several different levels from individuals and populations to ecosystems and biosphere level. Ecology is a multi-disciplinary science, drawing on many other branches of science.

Ethology studies animal behavior (particularly of social animals such as primates and canids), and is sometimes considered as 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.

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