How Computer-Based Technologies Influence the Study of Biology

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Through the digital revolution, computers have spread into every home and workplace. Science is no exception. Learn about how computers have impacted the study of biology.

The Digital Revolution

Over the last 30-40 years, the world has changed forever, from the way work is done to the way we live at home, and it's all thanks to computers. Digital revolution is a term that describes how microprocessor-based computers have rapidly progressed from being rare, specialist devices to being essential to every day of our lives. A lot of this happened because microprocessors made computers smaller and cheaper to manufacture.

Computers are used for everything these days, and that includes science. Physicists run complex models simulating everything from particle interactions to plasma flows inside the sun. Chemists can model chemical reactions. But what about biology? It might seem like biology is very physical and hands-on - after all, it deals with actual biological organisms that exist on a large scale. But it turns out that biology is not exempt from the digital revolution. Computers are essential to current research and discoveries in biology. Let's take a look at some examples.

Through the digital revolution, computers have taken over
Through the digital revolution, computers have taken over

Studying Biology with Computers

Examples of how biology uses computers include complex systems biology, molecular genetics, genomics, and drug design and discovery.

Complex systems biology is a field of theoretical biology that deals with the structure, function, emergence, and evolution of biological organisms. It's basically a way of understanding biology using highly complex theoretical models. These models could not possibly exist without computers - what a computer can simulate in days would take a human years.

Molecular genetics is the study of the structure and function of the molecules that make up genes: the study of chromosomes and gene expression for organisms. Molecular genetics includes the development of genetic screening (tests that tell you if your genetics make you susceptible to a disease), gene therapy (treating disease by inserting genes into a cell), and the human genome project (mapping the genes that make up humans). All of these things require computers to study. For example, the human genome project involved analyzing the 20,000 to 25,000 genes in human DNA. This is far too many for humans to analyze, and as computers became more powerful, the 15-year project finished in only 13 years.

The DNA double helix contains all of our genetic information
The DNA double helix contains all of our genetic information

Genomics is like molecular genetics, except that it focuses more on how genes interact with each other and with the environment. More complex diseases like cancer and heart disease come under the umbrella of genomics because there isn't a single gene that causes them. With tens of thousands of genes and the huge amount of complexity in their relationships, computers are even more important for genomics than regular genetics. Computers in genomics can help us figure out the most likely evolutionary relationships between organisms by analyzing their genetics, and can be used to synthesize the huge amount of data on genetics that we have available.

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