Home | Physics | What is Biophysics?-Branches and Applications

What is Biophysics?-Branches and Applications

September 30, 2023
written by Qamar Zaman

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary science that applies the principles of physics and mathematics to understand the behavior of biological systems. It seeks to explain the physical and mechanistic basis of biological processes, such as the structure and function of molecules, cells, and organisms.

Biophysicists use a variety of techniques, including experimental and computational methods, to investigate biological phenomena at the molecular, cellular, and systems levels.

What is Biophysics?

Biophysics is a scientific discipline that applies theories and methods of physics to understand the mechanisms underlying biological processes and systems. It seeks to uncover the physical principles that govern living organisms across all scales of complexity, from individual molecules, cells, and tissues up to the behavior of organisms and populations.

image of biophysics

Biophysics emerged as an established field in the 20th century, fueled by advances in physics that could probe biological questions with new technologies like X-ray diffraction, spectroscopy, microscopy, and computational modeling.

Biophysicists derive quantitative data on biological structures and phenomena, analyzing it using principles from thermodynamics, mechanics, electrodynamics, and quantum mechanics. This physics-based approach complements biochemical and molecular biological approaches to reveal a more complete understanding of biological systems.

History of Biophysics

Key developments in the emergence of biophysics include:

  • X-ray diffraction was used to determine biomolecular structures starting in the 1930s.
  • Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley’s work on neural signaling applied electrophysiology to neurons in the 1940s.
  • First atom-level biomolecular structures were obtained through NMR spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography in the 1960s-70s.
  • Advancements in fluorescence microscopy enabled single-molecule biophysics in the 1980s.
  • Improved computational power enabling molecular dynamics simulations starting in the 1970s and expanded use in the 1990s.
  • New biophysical techniques like atomic force microscopy, superresolution microscopy, and DNA origami developed in the 1980s-90s.
  • The rise of nanotechnology and systems biology spurred the interdisciplinary growth of biophysics from 2000 onwards.

Branches of Biophysics

There are several major branches within biophysics that focus on different levels of biological organization. Here are three main branches of biophysics.

Molecular Biophysics

Molecular biophysics seeks to understand biology at the molecular scale. This branch focuses on studying the three-dimensional structure and dynamics of biological molecules like proteins, DNA, RNA, and lipids.

Key concepts in molecular biophysics include molecular interactions, intramolecular forces, conformational changes, and thermodynamics.

For example, researchers may use techniques like X-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, and single-molecule imaging to study molecular structure and folding. Other areas of research include molecular motors, self-assembly, and molecular machines. Insights from molecular biophysics have been instrumental in drug design and nanotechnology.

Cellular Biophysics

Cellular biophysics examines the physical nature of cells and processes like transport across cell membranes, cell motility, and signal transmission. Important concepts include the cytoskeleton, cell adhesion, active transport, and mechanotransduction.

For instance, biophysicists investigate how motor proteins generate forces for muscle contraction and cargo transport within cells.

Other examples include studying how cells sense mechanical forces and convert them into biochemical signals, and how electrical signals propagate along nerve cells. Understanding the biophysics of cells aids in developing treatments for diseases and conditions related to cellular function.

Systems Biophysics

Systems biophysics aims to understand biological phenomena at the level of whole organisms, populations, and ecosystems. It applies principles like thermodynamics, network analysis, and non-linear dynamics to study emergent properties of living systems.

For example, researchers may develop biophysical models of heart rhythms, patterns of neuronal firing, or collective behaviors in groups of organisms.

Other topics include bioenergetics, biomechanics, neurophysics, and applications of physics in ecology and evolution. Systems biophysics provides insights that complement findings from molecular and cellular biology.

Scope of Biophysics

Biophysics is a highly interdisciplinary field that applies concepts and methods from physics to study biological processes and systems. Some key areas that fall under the realm of biophysics include:

  • Structural biophysics – Determining the physical structure and dynamics of biological molecules like proteins and DNA using techniques like X-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, and single-molecule studies.
  • Biomechanics – Analysis of mechanics and motion in biological systems including cells, tissues, organs, and organisms.
  • Medical biophysics – Applying physics to medicine, including medical imaging techniques (MRI, CT, PET scans), radiation therapy, and developing diagnostic and therapeutic technologies.
  • Neurophysics – Studying the physics behind neural signaling, computation in the brain, and the connections between neural networks.
  • Computational biophysics – Using computational modeling and simulation of biological systems to determine their physical mechanisms.
  • Single-molecule biophysics – Manipulating and studying individual biomolecules using advanced microscopy and laser techniques.
  • Ecological biophysics – Applying biophysical principles to understand ecosystems across multiple scales and levels of complexity.

Applications of Biophysics

The interdisciplinary nature of biophysics allows it to make important contributions across a wide range of fields. Applications of biophysics include:

  • Medicine – Biophysical techniques are used to understand disease processes, develop medical devices, and guide emerging therapies. For example, biophysics plays a role in developing better imaging technologies, modeling heart arrhythmias, and designing targeted drug delivery methods.
  • Biotechnology – Insights from biophysics inform the engineering of proteins, biomaterials, biosensors, and biocompatible implants. Biophysics also aids in optimizing processes like fermentation and biocatalysis.
  • Synthetic Biology – Principles of molecular biophysics guide the design of artificial gene circuits, metabolic pathways, and molecular machines constructed from biological components.
  • Pharmacology – Biophysical approaches shed light on drug-target interactions, pharmacokinetics, and mechanisms of drug action. This assists rational drug design.
  • Neuroscience – Biophysical modeling and imaging techniques help reveal how electrical signals propagate in neurons and give rise to cognition and behavior.
  • Ecology – Biophysics provides insights into topics like animal locomotion, nutrient cycling, and responses of biological systems to physical environmental factors.

In all of these areas, biophysics provides a unique perspective to help advance technologies and address scientific questions relevant to health, environment, and society. The field will continue finding new applications as biological physics and engineering continue converging.

What Do Biophysicists Do?

Biophysicists use physics principles and techniques to study biological questions. Their day-to-day work involves designing experiments, collecting data, analyzing results, and developing theoretical models. They may collaborate with biologists, chemists, engineers, and medical researchers. Some common activities include:

  • Using imaging techniques like X-ray crystallography, NMR, or electron microscopy to determine molecular structures
  • Developing computer simulations of biological processes and systems
  • Designing and performing single-molecule experiments using lasers, AFM, optical tweezers, etc.
  • Analyzing the mechanics and motility of cells and cellular components
  • Measuring the electrical conductivity, capacitance, and inductance of biological samples
  • Developing sensors to detect biological molecules and analyze properties like binding affinity
  • Applying principles of physics to study topics in neuroscience, physiology, ecology, paleontology, and more
  • Publishing research and presenting findings at scientific conferences and meetings

Biophysicists enjoy applying quantitative approaches to explore the frontier of biological sciences. Their fundamental research provides the foundation for many medical and technological innovations.