As a student and enthusiast of Biology, you will already be familiar with the concepts of the Science. However, are you aware of how much of an impact some biological breakthroughs have had on our world?
Biology plays a huge part in agriculture, medicine and even psychology.
While many breakthroughs are a result of collective research and are as such the responsibility and fruition of various heads coming together and working hard on a common cause, there are still some individual biologists who deserve recognition for the influential work they have carried out.
Here, we will take a look at some of the most respected of scientists within the field of Biology as well as some of the most innovative breakthroughs of this century, and the last.
IVF, or In Vitro Fertilisation goes back to the 1970s century when John Rock first extracted a fertilised egg and it became clear that this technology could be used to develop and later transfer eggs into the uterus.
This exciting new technology meant the world for many infertile men and women, giving them the opportunity to get pregnant and have the chance at becoming a family. It was in 1979 that the first human baby was born through IVF after which many more birth stories emerged.
A common scenario for infertile couples was to have a surrogate, who would be artificially inseminated using a kit containing the intended father’s semen. In this case, the baby would have been conceived using the surrogate woman’s egg.
However, surrogacy opportunities moved on too and women were able to host eggs of the intended mother, or donated eggs, which meant that the carrier of the baby had no genetic link to the baby inside her womb. Though more expensive as an option, this was often the preferred choice for many surrogates as it is a situation they feel more comfortable with.
During the early 90s, doctors experimented with freezing and thawing embryos which led to even more success for this scientific procedure.
While DNA was first discovered in the late 1800s, it was in 1927 that scientists proposed that it was a ‘giant hereditary molecule’ made up of two strands.
Later, around the beginning of the 1940s, a team of biologists (which included Oswald Avery, Colin MacLeod, and Maclyn McCarthy) identified the first facts displaying DNA’s specific role in hereditary, called the transforming principle, later verified in the 50s by the Hershey-Chase duo.
It was during this decade that laboratories came up with the double-helix model of DNA structure that is familiar to us today.
Scientists discovered the double-helix structure of DNA strands in the second half of the 20th century. Photo credit: M Pinarci via Visualhunt / CC BY
We now know far more about our genes and the role of DNA.
For instance, we have discovered that DNA is made of twisted strands of the bases A, T, C and G and that genes are sections of this DNA. Each gene contains the code for creating a particular protein and the sequence of bases within the gene dictates which amino acids are created and joined to produce a new protein molecule.
Meanwhile, in the 1940s, Alexander Fleming was the driving force behind the mass production of penicillin, a group of antibiotics which were, and still are, effective against numerous bacterial infections.
Though Fleming dates his discovery of the medicine back to the 1920s, his findings were not initially given the attention they deserved and it wasn’t until the 1940s, when a team headed by Howard Florey began to mass-produce the drug for pharmaceutical companies.
The three main investors in the discover, Florey, Ernst Boris Chain and Fleming shared the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work.
While much of what we know about us and the world we live in has come from years of discovery and research, the last 25 years have seen us through a range of groundbreaking discoveries, as well as building on existing biological concepts.
Infertility treatment, for example, is continuing to advance even to this date. While the late 1900s saw scientists discover how to help couples conceive by implanting embryos, major advancements in recent years mean that even women who have had their ovaries removed can still birth healthy children thanks to ovarian tissue transplants.
Thanks to IVF, many infertile couples can now birth healthy babies. Photo credit: Faith @101 via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA
Furthermore, while surrogates and donors were the most efficient way to grow embryos for men and women struggling to conceive naturally, these surrogates and sperm and egg donors are being somewhat phased out now thanks to new technology that enables doctors to enhance women’s ability to produce healthy eggs and likewise men’s ability to contribute effective sperm.
Now that the technology is more common in our everyday lives, IVF processes are often far cheaper than they once were, which means that more couples can experience the benefits of this life-changing technology.
One breakthrough which you will no doubt learn about during the course of your studies
is the cloning of Dolly the sheep. In 1996, scientists successfully cloned a female sheep for the very first time using adult cells from the mammary glands in a process called nuclear transfer.
The sheep, subsequently named Dolly, grew normally and fully and went down in History. Since then, scientists have been able to clone further species, even attempting to reproduce extinct animals using the scientific technology to try to save endangered or newly extinct species.
Much like the above procedure, many more scientific research projects have come under the microscope in regards to their ethics. One extremely controversial topic is the gene-editing research in early human development which has the ability to modify genetics of a human embryo.
Gene-editing could bring an end to inherited diseases but many fear that the science could get out of control and could end up with people making choices about their unborn child that they shouldn’t need to make, such as determining their gender, the colour of their eyes or hair, and so on.
However, while some may be against the interference of scientists with the human body, many great things have come from this research and are still yet to come.
Two more significant breakthroughs in Biology are the research into stem cells, which enable doctors to treat blood disorders or cancers, and the biomedical research which has led to robotic limbs being controlled by the brain using neural signals. The latter is particularly exciting for our war heroes who have lost limbs whilst risking their lives on the front line for our country.
Going back to the breakthrough and development of IVF, Robert Edwards should not go unnoticed. Edwards was awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his contribution towards the development of the biological process.
Carl Wood, however, was equally as important and as a result was dubbed ‘the father of IVF’ after having pioneered the freezing and thawing of embryos.
More recently, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2007 was awarded jointly to Oliver Smithies, Sir Martin J. Evans and Mario R. Capecchi for their discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications using embryonic stem cells. While their research was carried out on mice, this huge breakthrough marked a big milestone in understanding the role of our genes and their significance.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is an award presented each year by the Nobel Foundation to recognise the outstanding discoveries in the field of biological sciences and medicine.
Worthy scientists are awarded a Nobel Prize for their discoveries in Science. Photo credit: Trondheim | Gjøvik | Ålesund via VisualHunt.com / CC BY-SA
If you are interested in knowing more about some of the individuals who have helped to shape the history of Biology, as well as the discoveries they have made, then you can use the Internet to source such findings and use it to enhance your Biology revision.
For example, to get an idea of what is being researched right now, take a look at the recent winners of the above Nobel Prize. Some of the findings are unbelievable and really very inspirational, so much so that they could well give you some great ideas to discuss when it comes to your upcoming exams.
Websites such as BBC Bitesize and Revision World contain exercises and activities to help you to learn more about the significance of Biology on our natural world as well as teach you about the leading scientists within the field and the essential vocabulary you will need to work in the scientific sector.
To find out how your Biology revision crosses over with the arts too, see our blog on the artistic links.