Few areas of study are broader, or more intriguing, than life science. Once upon a time we simply referred to it as biology, a much narrower field of study. Decades of discoveries, research, and technological advances have pushed the envelope of life science literally out into the cosmos. Not only is life science about the millions of species of living organisms on earth, but it is also about those organisms no longer living and those we have yet to discover, including those which may exist on other worlds. No matter what interests you on our vast planet and beyond, there is a field of life science for you, and likely several. In fact, you are probably already a big fan of several fields without knowing it.
Regardless, what follows should prove to be fascinating information along with some recent developments. Hopefully, your curiosity will be sparked and cause you to explore this smorgasbord of science much more…
10 Amazing Facts You Need to Know About Life Science
Ever hear of “wetware”? Like software and hardware, this mostly conceptual but rapidly evolving field of biotechnology focuses on areas like “organic computers” where living organisms such as neurons are used to power these computers, dramatically increasing computing capacity and reducing size. While current hardware is small today, wetware could do much more on a microscopic scale.
On the Frontier: Cornell University scientists have created “engineered organic robotic machines” that eat, move, grow, and yes, eventually die. Grown using DNA-based bio-material, these little robots have artificial metabolisms. Two of these machines actually raced each other.
It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of planets orbiting other stars was just that, an idea. Now that more than 4,000 exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed, the field of astrobiology has expanded into a myriad of possibilities. With our neighbour Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s moon Enceladus as examples in our solar system known to have water, this has become one of the most exciting fields. Planetary scientists are researching how life could survive and thrive on other worlds. Two analogues for researching conditions on Mars and elsewhere? The hot dry Mojave Desert and the frigid Antarctic continent.
On the Frontier: TESS, NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, recently discovered the first earth-size planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” around its star. The Goldilocks Zone is the habitable zone around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold to support life… it’s just right. The planet, TOI 700, lies 100 light years from Earth (One light year is ~6 trillion miles). TOI’s year is only 37 days long because it is much closer to it’s smaller, cooler sun, yet receives about 86% of the energy earth receives.
On a somewhat scarier note, the Jurassic Park movie franchise made for some chilling thoughts at the prospect of cloning long-extinct dinosaurs. Now that notion is in full swing, although we hopefully won’t be seeing a pack of raptors running around any time soon. If scientists at Harvard University and elsewhere are successful, Woolly Mammoths will be wandering the Arctic tundra once again. “Synthetic biology” lies at the intersection of palaeontology and cloning, where the retrieved DNA of a 40,000-year-old Mammoth will be combined with that of an Asian elephant, a 99% DNA match.
On the Frontier: Scientists successfully implanted mammoth DNA into mouse eggs so the egg’s natural mechanisms could repair the long-frozen DNA. The DNA “woke up” for a short period but was too damaged to make it to the cell-division stage. The effort continues.
As intriguing as the prospect of life elsewhere in the cosmos is, equally intriguing is what lies beneath our oceans. To date, only 5% of the earth’s oceans have been explored! The more we study the oceans the more we realize how much we don’t know. Marine biologists are discovering new species living at tremendous depths, defying assumptions about what could survive there. At depths that would crush a submarine, we find a multitude of species thriving in the cold darkness. Many are luminous, some live near hot ocean floor vents, most dining on the foodstuffs that fall thousands of feet to the bottom. The Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, is nearly 7 miles deep. Turn Mt. Everest upside down, drop it in, and you’d still have 7,000 feet of room left.
On the Frontier: Unfortunately, not everything down there is good. Japanese researchers recently discovered a single-use plastic bag 36,000 feet down in the Trench. It seems microplastics are quite a plentiful past the 3.7-mile mark. With no ultraviolet light down there plastics could last for tens of thousands of years.
Of all the many life science categories one is purposefully vague in its scope. Theoretical biology doesn’t focus on any one field, but rather it employs mathematics and modelling to support many fields. Just as with other theoretical fields of science such as theoretical physics, theoretical biology asks questions which do not lend themselves to observable experimentation. So while experimental biology uses experiments, theoretical uses applied mathematics to simulate processes and outcomes. This approach is used in the life sciences field of pharmacology in order to model thousands of chemical combinations per minute in the search for drugs that might cure diseases such as cancer.
On the Frontier: The use of modelling and simulation (M&S) has recently moved to the forefront of drug development, having proven its value in more accurate predictions of reactions to experimental drugs, more accurate dosages, descriptions of diseases, and potential therapies.
Were you aware that language is a field of life science? A “newer” field, biolinguistics is the study of language and its development in living species. Biolinguistics was first suggested as a field in the 1960s and is truly interdisciplinary, bringing together biology, psychology, neuroscience, mathematics, and linguistics. While “speech” is a biological process, language goes well beyond the physical act of speaking, capturing the meaning, sound, and structure of a language. The brain remains a great mystery, including where the language is concerned. Many scientists agree the appropriate description is “the language-ready brain”, referring to the belief that the brain is uniquely pre-wired from the start and it is this characteristic that makes us capable of language.
On the Frontier: In recent months, scientists have challenged the classical model of language which is based on single-word processing. They argue it is far more complex, involving multiple brain networks, and that other areas of the brain are more involved than previously thought, including those associated with music and arithmetic.
Did you know that geneticists were able to tell what a 5,700-year-old woman looked like and what her eye color was simply by her ‘chewing gum’? From analyzing remnant DNA captured in a piece of birch bark commonly chewed at the time, it was determined she had blue eyes. This is just one example of how far genetics has come in its relative infancy. The field is growing rapidly, evidenced by the ability to learn about our ancestry and disease markers by filling a small plastic vial with some saliva and dropping it in the mail. The good news is we are learning more than ever about ourselves, our lineage and our health; the bad news is some of us wish we didn’t know so much. The deeper we go in science, the closer to many answers we get, only to uncover yet more questions to be answered.
On the Frontier: A team of U.S.-based bioengineers has devised “DNA-binding editorial assistants” which provide greater access to DNA and allow for the correction of disease-causing mutations.
As with astrobiology, life science can look forward to the future in search of what we may find. Closer to home, one area of life science looks at the near future based on what is happening around us. Ecology studies the rapidly changing environment around us and its impact on living organisms and their ecosystems, getting our attention. A recent example is that of the well-reported honey bee catastrophe where colonies of bees were collapsing at an incredible rate. A complex process was brought into the public consciousness by everyday honey bees, of which there are some 20,000 varieties. Environmental threats to species are of course not new, but in a world of 24/7 news and devices everywhere, it’s easy to lose sight of the living world around us.
On the Frontier: The environmental impact of e-commerce has become an area of intense scrutiny. The packaging, shipping, transportation, and returns associated with online shopping are pushing back against the assumption that online is less impactful.
Probably the most impressive statistics associated with living organisms on earth are actually those associated with mass extinctions throughout our planet’s history. It is an accepted fact that there have been five mass extinctions uncovered by scientists. What is amazing is the percentage of all living organisms in existence at the time that were wiped out. Here is a list showing when they occurred and the percentage of life brought to extinction.
To put the numbers in perspective today it is estimated there are more than 9 million species of living organisms on earth.
- End of Ordovician 444 million years ago, 86% lost
- Late Devonian 375 million years ago, 75% lost
- End of Permian 251 million years ago, 96% lost
- End of Triassic 200 million years ago, 80% lost
- End of Cretaceous 66 million years ago, 76% lost
Truly astounding to consider. You’ll recognize the event 66 million years ago caused by an asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, but focus on the event 251 million years ago at the end of the Permian, commonly known as “The Great Dying”. A combination of violent eruptions and other simultaneous events pumped carbon dioxide, methane, and hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere. The result was the extinction of 96% of all life on earth! Palaeontologists have said this set life back some 300 million years. It’s quite impressive how far we’ve come given how many times life has nearly been wiped out and then had to recover, and those same threats are still very real today.
On the Frontier: Scientists have recently discovered the world’s oldest known asteroid impact, dated to 2.229 billion years ago, 100 miles North of Perth, Australia. An ice age then, the 4-mile wide impact would have ejected 100 billion tons of water vapour into the atmosphere, enough to have warmed the earth and ended that ice age, say scientists.
The good news? There are 15,000 to 18,000 NEW species discovered every year ticking that 9 million number steadily upward. The mind-boggling fact is that an estimated 86% of all species have yet to be discovered. Think about that… with all the life around us, we have yet to discover 86% of what’s out there. Where will that 86% be found? It’s anyone’s guess.
On the Frontier: A new species of lizard has been discovered and it’s only female. It can give birth without the need for a male in a process known as parthenogenesis. This “self-cloning” species was discovered by a Vietnamese scientist in – are you ready? – a Vietnamese restaurant. He noticed the identical lizards in a tank, on the dinner menu.
Life science will be an expanding field of study for more years than we can imagine. Harder to imagine will be the new fields of life science yet to be created. Every new door we open leads us to another, tugging at our curiosity and rewarding us with wondrous surprises. Life science is itself a living, evolving area of study. The thrill of discovery is something that has driven explorers and scientists for millennia. Few things, if any, can match the search for and discovery of life, regardless of whether it is at the bottom of the oceans, the heart of the Amazon, or in deep space.