When you were in school, you may have had to take a course titled “Life Science 101” or similar. You may have seen textbooks about life sciences without ever knowing what that means. What is life science after all?
Life science is an enormous field of study that examines every living thing on earth. From bacteria to begonias to beluga whales, life sciences aim to learn everything about life on this planet. Read on to learn more about this field and everything it encompasses.
What Is Life Science?
As the name might suggest, life science studies life in all its forms, past and present. This can include plants, animals, viruses and bacteria, single-celled organisms, and even cells. Life sciences study the biology of how these organisms live, which is why you may hear this group of specialties referred to as biology.
As you might expect, with an estimated 8.7 million species of animals, about 400,000 species of plants, and countless species of bacteria and viruses, there are a lot of different forms of life you can study. Many life science researchers specialize in one class or organism, and some specialties such as zoology have even more subspecialties. There are more than thirty different branches of life sciences, but we’ll review some of the major branches here.
Ecology looks at the interactions between organisms and their environment. This can include topics like the food chain, parasitic and beneficial relationships, and relationships within species. Ecology also examines things like biodiversity, organism population numbers, and distribution of those organisms.
In effect, ecology aims to get an overall picture of the way ecosystems work. These systems are complex, dynamic webs of life that are constantly shifting and maintaining a delicate balance without which the system would collapse. This ecosystem could be as large as an entire rainforest or as small as a pond in Minnesota.
Botany studies is a branch of biology (pun intended) that looks at plants. Everything from lichens, grass, and other groundcovers to the towering redwoods fall under the realm of botany. It may also include fungi and algae, which differ from other varieties of plants.
Botany is one of those subclasses of biology that has subdivisions of its own. Some scientists focus on plant biochemistry, while others look at plant ecology, a branch that sits somewhere between botany and ecology. Additional subdivisions include plant genetics, evolution, physiology, and anatomy and morphology.
Whereas botany focuses on the plant kingdom, zoology looks at the animal kingdom. It looks at characteristics of different animals, including their behavior, breeding, migration patterns, habitats, and more. It also works to identify new species; of the estimated 8.7 million animal species on earth, we only know about 1.2 million species.
As with ecology and botany, zoology crosses over with several other disciplines, including paleontology, entomology, and genetics. Different zoologists focus on different types of animals, including birds, reptiles, mammals, fish, and more. There are more than a half-dozen subfields of zoology.
Entomology is the study of all the creepy crawly things in the world. This field officially studies insects, but it may also examine arachnids, myriapods, worms, snails, and slugs. This could be considered a branch of zoology since insects technically fall within the animal kingdom.
Of the 1.2 million species we know about, insects account for nearly 900,000 species. They date back at least 400 million years (far older than the oldest dinosaurs) and are found in nearly every ecosystem on Earth.
Microbiology looks at some of the smallest of all living beings – single-celled organisms or small cell colonies. This can include bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other tiny organisms that live all around and inside us. Historically, microbiology has been one of the hardest fields to pin down because getting a clear image of the subjects has been so hard.
For example, viruses have both fallen under and been expelled from the field of microbiology. It’s hard to nail down a specific definition of life, and viruses are one of those things that like to play jump rope with that line. And that’s to say nothing of the 99 percent of microorganisms that can’t be observed using traditional methods.
Cell biology goes yet smaller than microbiology, taking a look at the living systems that exist within individual cells. That’s right; even the cells that make up your body have their own tiny ecosystems. Remember learning in ninth-grade biology that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell?
Cell biology looks at the life processes of individual cells, including metabolic processes, reproduction, signaling pathways, and the chemical composition of the cell. This gives us a better idea of how life on a larger scale works. It’s especially important in fields like genetics and pharmacology.
Whereas botany and zoology look at organisms as being within their environments, physiology focuses on how those beings stay alive. This includes organ systems, organs, cells, and molecules that run the chemical processes that support life. Physiology sees you not as a person interacting with the world around you or with a complex mental life, but as an intricate dance of chemical interactions that work to keep you alive.
Physiology can look at any of the forms of life we’ve discussed. Plant, animal, human, cellular, and microbial physiology are all subsets of this field of study. Physiology is also intimately tied to epidemiology and pharmacology.
Although the study of DNA and the genome is relatively new, genetics is a field that traces all the way back to Gregor Mendel and his pea plants. It looks at how traits are passed down and how they adapt to suit the environment. Only in recent years have we come to understand exactly how that genetic inheritance happens.
With the discovery of DNA, genetics has expanded to include traits that we only believe may be genetically linked. Geneticists are writing life science articles exploring whether traits like addiction, cancer, talent, and other such things may be passed down genetically and how. In the future, we may even see genetic modifications that could prevent cancer.
Epidemiology is a look at the life cycles of diseases. It may seem strange to think of something like the flu as alive, but these diseases are made of tiny living organisms. Epidemiology looks at how they live, how they reproduce, how they affect humans, and how they die.
Epidemiology is the cornerstone of public health, looking at outbreak patterns of diseases, coming up with treatments and cures, and developing vaccines against them. The more we know about how these organisms live, the more we can do to prevent them from making us sick. As you might expect, epidemiology and physiology are very closely linked.
Paleontology looks at life that isn’t, well, alive anymore. Specifically, it studies dinosaurs and how they may have lived. It is based around the fossil record and the clues we can glean from those preserved remains.
Paleontology is somewhat on the outskirts of biology, bumping up against geology. But while it does include a close study of different rocks, paleontology aims to use those rocks as a way to reconstruct a record of life that once existed on this planet. Paleontologists try to use dinosaur fossils to reverse-engineer how they lived, what they looked like, and even how they died.
Marine biology can encompass a lot of the fields we’ve already mentioned here, with one major twist. Marine biology focuses on life in the oceans, everything from whales to fish to plankton to algae. It studies different ocean ecosystems, food chains, botany, and more.
Part of the reason marine biology is so important is that most current theories say that life on Earth began in our oceans. There are species still swimming that were around in the time of the dinosaurs. There are also species living at the bottom of the ocean who seem to defy the rules that normally apply to life, so studying them can give us insights into more of the rules that govern all life on Earth.
These ten branches of life sciences are just a few of dozens. Biotechnology, bioinformatics, and synthetic biology all study different facets of the connection between life and technology, a connection that’s growing stronger all the time. Astrobiology looks at the formation and presence of life in the universe, including our own.
Biolinguistics focuses on the biology and evolution of language among all living species. Biomechanics and biophysics look at the ways that living things move in the world and what that can tell us about them. Developmental biology takes a look at the life cycles of various living beings, starting from zygotes and moving all the way to mature adults.
Ethology and population biology look at the way we behave and interact in groups. Evolutionary biology and evolutionary developmental biology explore how we have evolved over the eons. Histology focuses on the tissues of living things, and immunology studies our immune systems.
Neuroscience specializes in the nervous systems that control different animals. Pharmacology looks at how drugs interact with our systems and aims to combat viruses and bacteria. Quantum biology studies quantum phenomena in living beings, and structural biology looks at how living things are put together.
Toxicology takes a look at chemicals and poisons and how they impact living things. Zymology explores fermentation. And theoretical biology doesn’t focus on any specific biological area, but rather at abstractions and mathematical models that describe biological phenomena.
Why Go Into Life Science
The biggest reason to go into life science is the sheer breadth of study it offers. The study of every living thing in the universe, past and present, is a pretty gigantic field. The chances are good that you’ll be able to find a specific area that catches your interest.
But even if you aren’t considering a career as a scientist, it’s still a good idea to study life science. As it turns out, that life science project your fourth-grade teacher had you do wasn’t pointless after all. It was a way to help you understand the world.
Life science explores every single area of our world – the oceans, the earth, the skies, the deserts, the tundra, the forests, the mountains. Knowing how life on our planet works can help give you a greater appreciation for the world we live in and how much we need to protect it. Wouldn’t you appreciate a pond you drive by every day if you knew the complexity of the systems operating in and around every part of it?
Life science can also reveal the wonder that you carry in yourself. Life science tells us that our bones are made of stardust and that we carry universes and supernovas in every cell of our bodies. Without you ever knowing it, your body does a million tiny tasks a day that are all so crucial for keeping you alive, and while all those minuscule processes are happening, while you are bursting with an incomprehensible amount of life, you’re walking down the street headed to your job like every other day of your life.
Knowing how wondrous every living thing around us is can make us feel more connected to the world and the people around us.
Learn More About Life Science
Life science is an enormous scientific field that aims to answer some of the most fundamental questions about us. It examines everything from the blue whale breaching the ocean’s surface for air to the sugar ant crawling along a kitchen counter to the bacteria that run your digestive process. It looks at how we live, where we live, and how we might live better.
If you’d like to answer the question, “What is life science?” check out the rest of our site at ARTiFACTS. We are focused on helping you safely share your research to accelerate discovery and quickly establish proof of existence. Try our system for free today and make more discoveries that will transform our understanding of the world.