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Important discoveries in biological science

Biology is the scientific study of all forms of life, including plants, animals, and microorganisms.

Among the numerous fields in biology are microbiology, the study of microscopic organisms like bacteria; cytology, the study of cells; embryology, the study of development; genetics, the study of heredity; biochemistry, the study of the chemical structures in living things; morphology, the study of the anatomy of plants and animals; taxonomy, the identification, naming, and classification of organisms; and physiology, the study of how organic systems function and respond to stimulation. Biology often interfaces with subjects like psychology. For example, animal behaviorists would need to understand the biological nature of the animal they are studying in order to evaluate the animal's behavior.

The history of biology begins with the careful observation of the external aspects of organisms and continues with investigations into the functions and interrelationships of living things.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with establishing the importance of observation and analysis as the basic approach for scientific investigation. By A.D. 200, studies in biology were centered in the Arab world. Most of the investigations during this period were made in medicine and agriculture. Arab scientists continued this activity throughout the Middle Ages.

When ancient Greek and Roman writings were revived in Europe during the Renaissance, scientific investigations began to accelerate. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Italian Renaissance artists, produced detailed anatomical drawings of human beings. At the same time others were dissecting cadavers (dead bodies) and describing internal anatomy. By the seventeenth century, formal experimentation was introduced into the study of biology. William Harvey, an English physician, demonstrated the circulation of the blood and so initiated the biological discipline of physiology.

So much work was being done in biological science during this period that academies of science and scientific journals were formed, the first of which being the Academy of the Lynx in Rome in 1603. In Massachusetts, the Boston Philosophical Society was founded nearly a hundred years before the American Revolution. The first scientific journals were established in 1665 with the Journal des Savants (France) and in Great Britain with the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

The invention of the light microscope opened the way for biologists to investigate living organisms at the cellular level, and ultimately at the molecular level. The first drawings of magnified life were made by Francesco Stelluti, an Italian who published drawings of a honeybee at a 10-times magnification in 1625.

During the eighteenth century, Carolus Linnaeus proposed a system for naming and classifying plants and animals which is still used today. In his book, Species plantarum, which was written in 1753, Linnaeus described 6,000 plants, each one assigned a binomial name—genus and species. For example, the binomial name for the wolf is Canis lupus, and for humans, Homo sapiens. In the nineteenth century, many explorers contributed to biological science by collecting plant and animal specimens from around the world. In 1859, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which he outlined the theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This was an important discovery; it disproved the idea that organisms generated spontaneously. Later, French chemist Louis Pasteur confirmed Darwin's findings by the discovery of certain bacteria caused diseases. Pasteur also developed the first vaccines. By the end of the nineteenth century the germ theory of disease was established by Robert Koch, and by the early twentieth century, chemotherapy was developed. The use of antibiotics began with penicillin in 1928 and steroids were discovered in 1935.

From the nineteenth century until the present, the amount of research and discovery in biology has been voluminous. Two fields of rapid growth in biological science today are molecular biology and genetic engineering.



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Campbell, Neil A., and Jane B. Reese. Biology. 6th ed. San Francisco: Benjamin/Cummings, 2001.

Perlman, Dan L., and Edward O. Wilson Conserving Earth's Biodiversity. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2000.

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Starr, Cecie, and Ralph Taggart. Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Pub Co, 2000.

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WGBH Educational Foundation and Clear Blue Sky Productions. "Evolution: A Journey into Where We're From and Where We're Going." 2001 [cited January 15, 2003]. <http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/>

Vita Richman


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Genetic engineering

—The manipulation of genetic material to produce specific results in an organism.

Germ theory of disease

—The theory that disease is caused by germs.


—The chemical changes within cells that produce energy for vital organism activity and the assimilation of nutrients.


—Living units that cannot be seen without magnification under a microscope.

Molecular biology

—The study of the cellular structure of living units.


—A cell that does not have a distinct nucleus, such as bacterium or alga.

Spontaneous generation

—The theory that disease was caused spontaneously, not from germs.

Additional topics

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