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Kinesin uses protein domain dynamics on nanoscales to walk along a microtubule. Kinesin walking.gif
Kinesin uses protein domain dynamics on nanoscales to walk along a microtubule.

Biophysics is an interdisciplinary science that applies approaches and methods traditionally used in physics to study biological phenomena. [1] [2] [3] Biophysics covers all scales of biological organization, from molecular to organismic and populations. Biophysical research shares significant overlap with biochemistry, molecular biology, physical chemistry, physiology, nanotechnology, bioengineering, computational biology, biomechanics, developmental biology and systems biology.


The term biophysics was originally introduced by Karl Pearson in 1892. [4] [5] The term biophysics is also regularly used in academia to indicate the study of the physical quantities (e.g. electric current, temperature, stress, entropy) in biological systems. Other biological sciences also perform research on the biophysical properties of living organisms including molecular biology, cell biology, chemical biology, and biochemistry.


Molecular biophysics typically addresses biological questions similar to those in biochemistry and molecular biology, seeking to find the physical underpinnings of biomolecular phenomena. Scientists in this field conduct research concerned with understanding the interactions between the various systems of a cell, including the interactions between DNA, RNA and protein biosynthesis, as well as how these interactions are regulated. A great variety of techniques are used to answer these questions.

A ribosome is a biological machine that utilizes protein dynamics Protein translation.gif
A ribosome is a biological machine that utilizes protein dynamics

Fluorescent imaging techniques, as well as electron microscopy, x-ray crystallography, NMR spectroscopy, atomic force microscopy (AFM) and small-angle scattering (SAS) both with X-rays and neutrons (SAXS/SANS) are often used to visualize structures of biological significance. Protein dynamics can be observed by neutron spin echo spectroscopy. Conformational change in structure can be measured using techniques such as dual polarisation interferometry, circular dichroism, SAXS and SANS. Direct manipulation of molecules using optical tweezers or AFM, can also be used to monitor biological events where forces and distances are at the nanoscale. Molecular biophysicists often consider complex biological events as systems of interacting entities which can be understood e.g. through statistical mechanics, thermodynamics and chemical kinetics. By drawing knowledge and experimental techniques from a wide variety of disciplines, biophysicists are often able to directly observe, model or even manipulate the structures and interactions of individual molecules or complexes of molecules.

In addition to traditional (i.e. molecular and cellular) biophysical topics like structural biology or enzyme kinetics, modern biophysics encompasses an extraordinarily broad range of research, from bioelectronics to quantum biology involving both experimental and theoretical tools. It is becoming increasingly common for biophysicists to apply the models and experimental techniques derived from physics, as well as mathematics and statistics, to larger systems such as tissues, organs, [6] populations [7] and ecosystems. Biophysical models are used extensively in the study of electrical conduction in single neurons, as well as neural circuit analysis in both tissue and whole brain.

Medical physics, a branch of biophysics, is any application of physics to medicine or healthcare, ranging from radiology to microscopy and nanomedicine. For example, physicist Richard Feynman theorized about the future of nanomedicine. He wrote about the idea of a medical use for biological machines (see nanomachines). Feynman and Albert Hibbs suggested that certain repair machines might one day be reduced in size to the point that it would be possible to (as Feynman put it) "swallow the doctor". The idea was discussed in Feynman's 1959 essay There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. [8]


Some of the earlier studies in biophysics were conducted in the 1840s by a group known as the Berlin school of physiologists. Among its members were pioneers such as Hermann von Helmholtz, Ernst Heinrich Weber, Carl F. W. Ludwig, and Johannes Peter Müller. [9] Biophysics might even be seen as dating back to the studies of Luigi Galvani.

The popularity of the field rose when the book What Is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger was published. Since 1957, biophysicists have organized themselves into the Biophysical Society which now has about 9,000 members over the world. [10]

Some authors such as Robert Rosen criticize biophysics on the ground that the biophysical method does not take into account the specificity of biological phenomena. [11]

Focus as a subfield

While some colleges and universities have dedicated departments of biophysics, usually at the graduate level, many do not have university-level biophysics departments, instead having groups in related departments such as biochemistry, cell biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, molecular biology, neuroscience, pharmacology, physics, and physiology. Depending on the strengths of a department at a university differing emphasis will be given to fields of biophysics. What follows is a list of examples of how each department applies its efforts toward the study of biophysics. This list is hardly all inclusive. Nor does each subject of study belong exclusively to any particular department. Each academic institution makes its own rules and there is much overlap between departments.[ citation needed ]

Many biophysical techniques are unique to this field. Research efforts in biophysics are often initiated by scientists who were biologists, chemists or physicists by training.

See also

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Theoretical chemistry Academic field

Theoretical chemistry is the branch of chemistry which develops theoretical generalizations that are part of the theoretical arsenal of modern chemistry: for example, the concepts of chemical bonding, chemical reaction, valence, the surface of potential energy, molecular orbitals, orbital interactions, and molecule activation.

Carlos Bustamante

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Molecular biophysics Interdisciplinary research area

Molecular biophysics is a rapidly evolving interdisciplinary area of research that combines concepts in physics, chemistry, engineering, mathematics and biology. It seeks to understand biomolecular systems and explain biological function in terms of molecular structure, structural organization, and dynamic behaviour at various levels of complexity. This discipline covers topics such as the measurement of molecular forces, molecular associations, allosteric interactions, Brownian motion, and cable theory. Additional areas of study can be found on Outline of Biophysics. The discipline has required development of specialized equipment and procedures capable of imaging and manipulating minute living structures, as well as novel experimental approaches.

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Arieh Warshel Israeli chemist, biochemist and biophysicist (born 1940)

Arieh Warshel is an Israeli-American biochemist and biophysicist. He is a pioneer in computational studies on functional properties of biological molecules, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and holds the Dana and David Dornsife Chair in Chemistry at the University of Southern California. He received the 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, together with Michael Levitt and Martin Karplus for "the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems".

Biophysical chemistry

Biophysical chemistry is a physical science that uses the concepts of physics and physical chemistry for the study of biological systems. The most common feature of the research in this subject is to seek explanation of the various phenomena in biological systems in terms of either the molecules that make up the system or the supra-molecular structure of these systems.

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The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to biophysics:

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to natural science:

Macromolecular assembly

The term macromolecular assembly (MA) refers to massive chemical structures such as viruses and non-biologic nanoparticles, cellular organelles and membranes and ribosomes, etc. that are complex mixtures of polypeptide, polynucleotide, polysaccharide or other polymeric macromolecules. They are generally of more than one of these types, and the mixtures are defined spatially, and with regard to their underlying chemical composition and structure. Macromolecules are found in living and nonliving things, and are composed of many hundreds or thousands of atoms held together by covalent bonds; they are often characterized by repeating units. Assemblies of these can likewise be biologic or non-biologic, though the MA term is more commonly applied in biology, and the term supramolecular assembly is more often applied in non-biologic contexts. MAs of macromolecules are held in their defined forms by non-covalent intermolecular interactions, and can be in either non-repeating structures, or in repeating linear, circular, spiral, or other patterns. The process by which MAs are formed has been termed molecular self-assembly, a term especially applied in non-biologic contexts. A wide variety of physical/biophysical, chemical/biochemical, and computational methods exist for the study of MA; given the scale of MAs, efforts to elaborate their composition and structure and discern mechanisms underlying their functions are at the forefront of modern structure science.

Sheena Elizabeth Radford FRS FMedSci is a British biophysicist, and Astbury Professor of Biophysics in the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology, School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Leeds. Radford is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Molecular Biology.

G. Marius Clore Molecular biophysicist, structural biologist

G. Marius Clore MAE, FRSC, FRS is a British-born, American molecular biophysicist and structural biologist. He was born in London, U.K. (1955) and is a dual US/U.K. Citizen. He is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a NIH Distinguished Investigator, and the Chief of the Molecular and Structural Biophysics Section in the Laboratory of Chemical Physics of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He is known for his foundational work in three-dimensional protein and nucleic acid structure determination by biomolecular NMR spectroscopy, for advancing experimental approaches to the study of large macromolecules and their complexes by NMR, and for developing NMR-based methods to study rare conformational states in protein-nucleic acid and protein-protein recognition. Clore's discovery of previously undetectable, functionally significant, rare transient states of macromolecules has yielded fundamental new insights into the mechanisms of important biological processes, and in particular the significance of weak interactions and the mechanisms whereby the opposing constraints of speed and specificity are optimized. Further, Clore's work opens up a new era of pharmacology and drug design as it is now possible to target structures and conformations that have been heretofore unseen.

Laura B. Eisenstein (1942–1985) was a professor in the physics department at the University of Illinois until her early death. Eisenstein was known for her contributions to the understanding of light-energy transduction mechanisms in biological molecules and their higher order assemblies. She was an experimentalist and spectroscopist who was particularly well known for her contributions applying the techniques of x-ray absorption spectroscopy and time-resolved resonance Raman spectroscopy to the study of biomolecules. These studies indicated that phenomena such as quantum-mechanical tunnelling can be successfully investigated even in soft-matter systems like proteins.

David Nathan Beratan is an American chemist and physicist, the R.J. Reynolds Professor of Chemistry at Duke University. He has secondary appointments in the departments of Physics and Biochemistry. He is the Director of the Center for Synthesizing Quantum Coherence, a NSF Phase I Center for Chemical Innovation.

Syma Khalid British biophysicist

Syma Khalid is a British biophysicist who is a Professor of Computational Microbiology in at the University of Oxford. She was awarded the Suffrage Science award for engineering and physical sciences in 2021.


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  3. "the definition of biophysics". Retrieved 2018-07-26.
  4. Pearson, Karl (1892). The Grammar of Science. p. 470.
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