A Beginner’s Guide to Biophysics – What? Who? Where? How?

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary field (Physics, Pharmacology, Chemistry etc) which applies theories and methods of Physics to study and understand biological systems. How a cell moves and how molecules of life (sugars, proteins, DNA) are structured have been tackled by biophysicists.

Biophysicists rely on their quantitative training to develop tools in order to unveil biological mysteries – a better understanding of Life allows a better tackling of disease and guides therapeutics. Present applications of Biophysics include:

  • Biological molecules structural analysis: Watson and Crick were awarded the Medicine Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, the genetic code of Life. They used X-ray diffraction patterns (X-rays used to determine biological molecules “locked in crystals”) to uncover the famous double DNA helix structure.
  • Computer modeling: to visualize and manipulate biological molecules for drug development. It has been useful in understanding how viruses such as COVID-19 binds to the surface of our cells and mediate subsequent infection. Modeling how protein mutation(s) can enhance tumour growth has also benefitted from this tool. 
  • Neuroscience: computational neural networks that imitate how the brain and nervous system work in the body have shed light on how nerve cells communicate and break down in neurodegenerative diseases.
  • Biomaterials: have revolutionized bioengineering and tissue engineering to repair damaged tissues in affected patients. An array of materials are used for prosthetics, artificial joints, hip replacements: silicone rubber for finger joints, bioglass for spine cages, PVC for facial prostheses. Biomaterials need to compatible with the environmental conditions of the organs or cells they are inserted in – corrosion resistant, wear resistant and not trigger any side effects in patients.
  • Imaging: Internal body images are produced by MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), CT (computerized tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography) scans. These commonly used techniques have been developed by biophysicists and used for screening/diagnosis in medical settings. 

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  • Medical applications: Biophysicists have tackled life-threatening conditions, examples include: the implantation of a one-way valves (needed to ensure blood flow in a single direction) to replace a non-functional one in the heart or using a cardiac defibrillator to deliver electric current to irregular heartbeats.  

Biophysicists usually work in academic research labs, hospitals or industrial engineering companies to conduct 3D biological modeling, develop diagnostic tests and unveil biological secrets. Beyond these traditional roles, they also advise governmental bodies and practice law in domains including intellectual property.