Introduction to the Branches of Biology

What you’ll learn to do: Identify the main branches of biology

While this course provides a broad introduction to the science of biology, higher level study of the subject quickly breaks down into a vast number of sub-disciplines (e.g., microbiology, immunology, neurobiology, anatomy and physiology). Specialists in these different fields of biology include doctors, nutritionists, pharmacologists, botanists, astrobiologists, and many many more.

Woman standing in front of a microscope

Figure 1

In this section, we’ll learn about the different paths you can take as you study the science of life.

Learning OUtcomes

Identify the main branches of biology

The scope of biology is broad and therefore contains many branches and sub-disciplines. Biologists may pursue one of those sub-disciplines and work in a more focused field. For instance, molecular biology and biochemistry study biological processes at the molecular and chemical level, including interactions among molecules such as DNA, RNA, and proteins, as well as the way they are regulated. Microbiology, the study of microorganisms, is the study of the structure and function of single-celled organisms. It is quite a broad branch itself, and depending on the subject of study, there are also microbial physiologists, ecologists, and geneticists, among others.

Forensic Science

Photo depicts a scientist working in the lab.

Figure 2. This forensic scientist works in a DNA extraction room at the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory at Fort Gillem, GA. (credit: United States Army CID Command Public Affairs)

Forensic science is the application of science to answer questions related to the law. Biologists as well as chemists and biochemists can be forensic scientists. Forensic scientists provide scientific evidence for use in courts, and their job involves examining trace materials associated with crimes. Interest in forensic science has increased in the last few years, possibly because of popular television shows that feature forensic scientists on the job. Also, the development of molecular techniques and the establishment of DNA databases have expanded the types of work that forensic scientists can do.

Their job activities are primarily related to crimes against people such as murder, rape, and assault. Their work involves analyzing samples such as hair, blood, and other body fluids and also processing DNA (Figure 2) found in many different environments and materials.

Forensic scientists also analyze other biological evidence left at crime scenes, such as insect larvae or pollen grains. Students who want to pursue careers in forensic science will most likely be required to take chemistry and biology courses as well as some intensive math courses.

Another field of biological study, neurobiology, studies the biology of the nervous system, and although it is considered a branch of biology, it is also recognized as an interdisciplinary field of study known as neuroscience. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, this sub-discipline studies different functions of the nervous system using molecular, cellular, developmental, medical, and computational approaches.

People sitting in the dirt with digging tools.

Figure 3. Researchers work on excavating dinosaur fossils at a site in Castellón, Spain. (credit: Mario Modesto)

Paleontology, another branch of biology, uses fossils to study life’s history (Figure 3). Zoology and botany are the study of animals and plants, respectively. Biologists can also specialize as biotechnologists, ecologists, or physiologists, to name just a few areas. Biotechnologists apply the knowledge of biology to create useful products. Ecologists study the interactions of organisms in their environments. Physiologists study the workings of cells, tissues and organs. This is just a small sample of the many fields that biologists can pursue. From our own bodies to the world we live in, discoveries in biology can affect us in very direct and important ways. We depend on these discoveries for our health, our food sources, and the benefits provided by our ecosystem. Because of this, knowledge of biology can benefit us in making decisions in our day-to-day lives.

The development of technology in the twentieth century that continues today, particularly the technology to describe and manipulate the genetic material, DNA, has transformed biology. This transformation will allow biologists to continue to understand the history of life in greater detail, how the human body works, our human origins, and how humans can survive as a species on this planet despite the stresses caused by our increasing numbers. Biologists continue to decipher huge mysteries about life suggesting that we have only begun to understand life on the planet, its history, and our relationship to it. For this and other reasons, the knowledge of biology gained through this textbook and other printed and electronic media should be a benefit in whichever field you enter.

Check Your Understanding

Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the previous section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade in the class, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.

Use this quiz to check your understanding and decide whether to (1) study the previous section further or (2) move on to the next section.