Medical & Biological Engineering Glossary
The discipline of engineering in agriculture, food and biological systems. Specific areas of interest include power systems and machinery design; structures and environment; food and bioprocess engineering; soil and water conservation; processing of agricultural products; ergonomics, safety and health; information and electrical technologies including remote sensing and precision agriculture.
- Devise practical, efficient solutions for producing, storing, transporting, processing, and packaging agricultural products.
- Solve problems related to systems, processes, and machines that interact with humans, plants, animals, microorganisms, and biological materials.
- Develop solutions for responsible, alternative uses of agricultural products, byproducts and wastes and of our natural resources – soil, water, air, and energy[ii].
The characterization and measurement of cells and cellular constituents for biological, diagnostic and therapeutic purposes. It embraces the fields of cell and molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, cell physiology, pathology, immunology, genetics, biotechnology, plant biology and microbiology[iii].
Analytical Cytology Resources:
International Society for Analytical Cytology (ISAC): http://www.isac-net.org/
Aquaculture is the cultivation of aquatic organisms, such as fish, shellfish, algae and other aquatic plants. Mariculture is specifically marine aquaculture, and thus is a subset of aquaculture. Some examples of aquaculture include raising catfish and tilapia in freshwater ponds, growing cultured pearls, and farming salmon in net-pens set out in a bay. Fish farming is a common kind of aquaculture[iv]. “Farming” implies some form of intervention in the fish-growing process to enhance growth and survival, such as regular stocking, feeding, protection from predators, etc[v].
Aquaculture Knowledge Environment: http://govdocs.aquake.org/
Aquaculture Dictionary: http://www.pisces-aqua.co.uk/aquatext/mainframe.htm
[ii] ASABE: http://www.asabe.org/pr/Promote_the_Profession.html
The chemistry of life, a bridge between biology and chemistry that studies how complex chemical reactions give rise to life. It is a hybrid branch of chemistry; the study of the chemical processes and compounds occurring in living organisms[i].
A branch of chemical engineering that mainly deals with the design and construction of unit processes that involve biological organisms or molecules. Biochemical engineering is often taught as a supplementary option to chemical engineering due to the similarities in both the background subject curriculum and problem-solving techniques used by both professions. Its applications are used in the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and water treatment industries[ii]. Biochemical engineers often use bioreactors for experimentation in growing cells or tissues.
Biochemical Engineering Resources:
American Institute of Chemical Engineers, Society for Biological Engineering:
Bioengineering integrates physical, chemical, or mathematical sciences and engineering principles for the study of biology, medicine, behavior, or health. It advances fundamental concepts, creates for the molecular to the organ systems levels, and develops innovative biologics, materials, processes, implants, devices, and informatics approaches for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease, for patient rehabilitation, and for improving health[iii].
Generally, bioengineering encompasses other engineering disciplines when they are applied to living organisms (e.g., prosthetics in mechanical engineering). Bioengineering is often synonymous with biomedical engineering, though in the strict sense the term can be applied more broadly to include food engineering and agricultural engineering. Biotechnology also falls under the purview of the broad umbrella of bioengineering. Biological Engineering is the same thing as Agricultural Engineering, whereas Biomedical engineering (also known as bioengineering) is related with the medical field. Biological engineering is called Bioengineering by some colleges and Biomedical engineering is called Bioengineering by others[iv].
Research, development, or application of computational tools and approaches for expanding the use of biological, medical, behavioral or health data, including those to acquire, store, organize, archive, analyze, or visualize such data[v]. Bioinformatics is closely related to computational biology.
In the last few decades, advances in molecular biology and the equipment available for research in this field have allowed the increasingly rapid sequencing of large portions of the genomes of several species. In fact, to date, several bacterial genomes, as well as those of some simple eukaryotes (e.g., Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker’s yeast) have been sequenced in full. The Human Genome Project, designed to sequence all 24 of the human chromosomes, is also progressing. Popular sequence databases, such as GenBank and EMBL, have been growing at exponential rates. This deluge of information has necessitated the careful storage, organization and indexing of sequence information. Information science has been applied to biology to produce the field called bioinformatics.
The simplest tasks used in bioinformatics concern the creation and maintenance of databases of biological information. Nucleic acid sequences (and the protein sequences derived from them) comprise the majority of such databases. While the storage and organization of millions of nucleotides is far from trivial, designing a database and developing an interface whereby researchers can both access existing information and submit new entries is only the beginning[vi].
Biomarkers are used to indicate or measure a biological process (for instance, levels of a specific protein in blood or spinal fluid, genetic mutations, or brain abnormalities observed in a PET scan or other imaging test). Detecting biomarkers specific to a disease can aid in the identification, diagnosis, and treatment of affected individuals and people who may be at risk but do not yet exhibit symptoms[vii].
Materials intended to interface with biological systems to evaluate, treat, augment or replace any tissue, organ or function of the body[viii]. In surgery, a biomaterial is a synthetic or natural material used to replace part of a living system or to function in intimate contact with living tissue. A biomaterial is different from a biological material such as bone that is produced by a biological system. Artificial hips, vascular stents, artificial pacemakers, and catheters are all made from different biomaterials and comprise different medical devices[ix].
Society for Biomaterials: http://www.biomaterials.org/
Biomaterials Network: http://www.biomat.net/
The field of study which makes use of the laws of physics and engineering concepts to describe motion of body segments, and the forces [both internal and external] which act upon them during activity[x]. The disciplines of biomaterials, molecular and cellular engineering are of great importance to biomechanics.
A genealogy of biomechanics: http://asb-biomech.org/historybiomech/
Biometrics is the science and technology of measuring and statistically analyzing biological data. In information technology, biometrics usually refers to technologies for measuring and analyzing human body characteristics such as fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns, and hand measurements, especially for authentication purposes[xi].
Bionics (also known as biomimetics, biognosis, biomimicry, or bionical creativity engineering) is the application of methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology. The transfer of technology between lifeforms and synthetic constructs is desirable because evolutionary pressure typically forces natural systems to become highly optimized and efficient. A classical example is the development of dirt- and water-repellent paint (coating) from the observation that the surface of the lotus flower plant is practically unsticky for anything (the lotus effect). Examples of bionics in engineering include the hulls of boats imitating the thick skin of dolphins, sonar, radar, and medical ultrasound imaging imitating the echolocation of bats. In the field of computer science, the study of bionics has produced cybernetics, artificial neurons, artificial neural networks, and swarm intelligence. Evolutionary computation was also motivated by bionics ideas but it took the idea further by simulating evolution in silico and producing well-optimized solutions that had never appeared in nature[xii].
Bionics and Space System Design: http://www.bionics2space.org/
Biopharmaceuticals are medicines made by biological processes rather than by chemical synthesis. Many medicines developed using recombinant DNA techniques are termed biopharmaceuticals[xiii]. They are actually proteins or nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) used for therapeutic or in vivo diagnostic purposes, which is produced by means other than direct extraction from a native (non-engineered) biological source. The first such substance approved (1982) for therapeutic use was recombinant human insulin, (rHI, trade name Humulin) developed by Genentech and marketed by Eli Lily[xiv].
A bioreactor may refer to any device or system that supports a biologically active environment. In one case, a bioreactor is a vessel in which is carried out a chemical process which involves organisms or biochemically active substances derived from such organisms. This process can either be aerobic or anaerobic. These bioreactors are commonly cylindrical, ranging in size from some liter to cube meters, and are often made of stainless steel.
A bioreactor may also refer to a device or system meant to grow cells or tissues in the context of cell culture. These devices are being developed for use in tissue engineering.
On the basis of mode of operation, a bioreactor may be classified as batch, fed batch or continuous[xv].
Biosensor is a type of biomolecular probe that measures the presence or concentration of biological molecules, biological structures, etc., by translating a biochemical interaction at the probe surface into a quantifiable physical signal such as light or electric pulse. biospecimen – Sample taken from a patient such as blood, tissue, urine, or sputum[xvi].
The most widespread example of a commercial biosensor is the blood glucose biosensor, which uses an enzyme to break blood glucose down. In so doing it transfers an electron to an electrode and this is converted into a measure of blood glucose concentration. The high market demand for such sensors has fueled development of associated sensor technologies[xvii].
Any technique that uses living organisms, or parts of organisms, to make or modify products, improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses[xviii].
One section of biotechnology is the directed use of organisms for the manufacture of organic products (examples include beer, milk products, and skin). Naturally present bacteria are utilized by the mining industry in bioleaching. Biotechnology is also used to recycle, treat waste, clean up sites contaminated by industrial activities (bioremediation), and produce biological weapons[xix].
There are also applications of biotechnology that do not use living organisms. Examples are DNA microarrays used in genetics and radioactive tracers used in medicine.
Modern biotechnology is often associated with the use of genetically altered microorganisms such as E. coli or yeast for the production of substances like insulin or antibiotics. It can also refer to transgenic animals or transgenic plants, such as Bt corn. Genetically altered mammalian cells, such as Chinese Hamster Ovarian (CHO) cells, are also widely used to manufacture pharmaceuticals. Another promising new biotechnology application is the development of plant-made pharmaceuticals[xx].
Biotechnology is also commonly associated with breakthroughs in new medical therapies and diagnostic devices[xxi].
Biotechnology applied to agricultural processes. An example is the designing of transgenic plants to grow under specific environmental conditions or in the presence (or absence) of certain agricultural chemicals. One hope is that green biotechnology might produce more environmentally friendly solutions than traditional industrial agriculture. An example of this is the engineering of a plant to express a pesticide, thereby eliminating the need for external application of pesticides. An example of this would be Bt corn. Whether or not green biotechnology products such as this are ultimately more environmentally friendly is a topic of considerable debate[xxiv].
Biotechnology applied to medical processes. Some examples are the designing of organisms to produce antibiotics, and the engineering of genetic cures to cure diseases through genomic manipulation[xxii].
Also known as grey biotechnology, is biotechnology applied to industrial processes. An example is the designing of an organism to produce a useful chemical. White biotechnology tends to consume less in resources than traditional processes when used to produce industrial goods[xxiii].
[iii] NIH Working Definition of Bioengineering, retrieved from: http://www.becon.nih.gov/bioengineering_definition.htm
[v] NIH Working Definition of Bioinformatics and Computational Biology
[viii] European Society for Biomaterials Consensus Conference II
[xi] Biometrics (2005). Biometric Consortium. Retrieved November 15, 2005,
[xvi] Biosensor (2005). National Institute of Cancer. Retrieved November 15, 2005,
Treatment in which stem cells are induced to differentiate into the specific cell type required to repair damaged or depleted adult cell populations or tissues[i]
Cell culture is the process by which either prokaryotic or eukaryotic cells are grown under controlled conditions. In practice the term “cell culture” has come to refer to the culturing of cells derived from multicellular eukaryotes, especially animal cells. The historical development and methods of cell culture are closely interrelated to those of tissue culture and organ culture[ii].
Cell engineering encompasses a wide range of research and practical techniques in science. Technically, any manipulation that disturbs a cell from its original, natural state is cell engineering. The term refers not just to changing a cell in some perceivable way, but to understanding how cells control their own destinies and then taking advantage of or overcoming those natural processes in order to achieve a particular change[iii].
Molecular and Cellular Engineering use engineering principles to understand and construct cellular and molecular circuits with useful properties. At the molecular level, proteins can be engineered to elicit specific ligand-receptor interactions, which can then be used for the rational design of targeted drug therapies. At the cellular level, metabolic engineering can create cellular biosensors that can monitor the environment for toxins or other specific molecules. Molecular and Cellular engineering can also be used to enhance the cellular production of pharmaceuticals, the delivery of beneficial genes to a particular cell type, and the production of tissues or tissue matrices for therapeutic purposes. This area of research also promises to help the scientific community unlock the mysteries of cellular metabolism, and how alterations in metabolism can lead to a myriad of human disease processes[iv].
The structures that hold our genes. Genes are the individual instructions that tell our bodies how to develop and function; they govern our physical and medical characteristics, such as hair color, blood type and susceptibility to disease[v].
Each chromosome has a p and q arm; p is the shorter arm and q is the longer arm. The arms are separated by a pinched region known as the centromere[vi].
The body is made up of individual units called cells. Your body has many different kinds of cells, such as skin cells, liver cells and blood cells. In the center of most cells is a structure called the nucleus; this is where chromosomes can be found[vii].
The typical number of chromosomes in a human cell is 46 – two pairs of 23 – holding an estimated 30,000 to 35,000 genes. One set of 23 chromosomes is inherited from the biological mother (from the egg), and the other set is inherited from the biological father (from the sperm)[viii].
Fact Sheet on Chromosomes: http://www.genome.gov/11508982
The field of cognitive neuroscience concerns the study of the neural mechanisms underlying cognition and is a branch of biological psychology which, in turn, is part of the wider field of neuroscience, the most comprehensive interdisciplinary discipline studying the brain[ix].
Cognitive neuroscience overlaps with cognitive psychology, and in fact has its roots largely in cognitive neuropsychology. But whereas cognitive psychologists seek to understand the mind, researchers in cognitive neuroscience are concerned with understanding how mental processes take place in the brain. Cognitive neuroscientists tend to have a background in experimental psychology, neurobiology, neurology, physics, and mathematics. Cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience influence each other on a continuous basis, since an understanding of mental structure can inform theories about brain functions and knowledge about neural mechanisms is useful in understanding mental structure[x].
Methods include psychophysical experiments, functional neuroimaging, neuropsychology and behavioral neuroscience. Cognitive neuroscience also makes contact with low-level data from electrophysiological studies of neural systems and, increasingly, cognitive genomics. The main theoretical approaches are computational neuroscience and the more “abstract” information processing approaches, inherited from cognitive psychology, psychometrics (mathematical psychology) and neuropsychology[xi].
Cognitive Neuroscience Resources:
Cognitive Neuroscience Society: http://www.cogneurosociety.org
The study of relationships between the genomes of different species or strains. Comparative genomics is an attempt to take advantage of the information provided by the signatures of selection to understand the function and evolutionary processes that act on genomes. While it is still a young field, it holds great promise to yield insights into many aspects of the evolution of modern species[xii].
Comparative genomics exploits both similarities and differences in the proteins, RNA, and regulatory regions of different organisms to infer how selection has acted upon these elements. Those elements that are responsible for similarities between different species should be conserved through time (stabilizing selection, while those elements responsible for differences among species should be divergent (positive selection). Finally, those elements that are unimportant to the evolutionary success of the organism will be unconserved (selection is neutral)[xiii].
Many natural phenomena can be considered to be complex systems, and their study (complexity science) is highly interdisciplinary. Examples of complex systems include ant-hills, ants themselves, human economies, nervous systems, cells and living things, including human beings[xiv].
The term complex system formally refers to a system of many parts which are coupled in a nonlinear fashion. Natural complex systems are modelled using the mathematical techniques of dynamical systems, which include differential equations, difference equations and maps. Because they are nonlinear, complex systems are more than the sum of their parts because a linear system is subject to the principle of superposition, and hence is literally the sum of its parts, while a nonlinear system is not. Put another way: a linear relationship is simply one whose graph is a straight line, so a linear connection between two things is one in which change on one side of the connection induces proportional change in the other. A nonlinear connection means that change on one side is not proportional to change on the other. When there are many non-linearities in a system (many components), behaviour can be as unpredictable as it is interesting. Complex systems research studies such behaviour[xv].
Complex Systems Resources:
Complex Systems Journal: http://www.complex-systems.com/
New England Complex Systems Institute: http://necsi.org/
Nonlinear Phenomena in Complex Systems: http://www.j-npcs.org
The development and application of data-analytical and theoretical methods, mathematical modeling and computational simulation techniques to the study of biological, behavioral, and social systems. Computational biology uses mathematical and computational approaches to address theoretical and experimental questions in biology[xvi].
Computational neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field which draws on neuroscience, computer science, and applied mathematics. It most often uses mathematical and computational techniques such as computer simulations and mathematical models to understand the function of the nervous system[xvii].
The field of computational neuroscience began with the work of Andrew Huxley, Alan Hodgkin, and David Marr. The results of Hodgkin and Huxley’s pioneering work in developing the voltage clamp allowed them to develop the first mathematical model of the action potential. David Marr’s work focuses on the interactions between neurons, suggesting computational approaches to the study of how functional groups of neurons within the hippocampus and neocortex interact, store, process, and transmit information[xviii].
Computational Neuroscience Resources:
Neural Network Simulator: http://www.neuron.yale.edu/neuron/
Cybernetics is a theory of the communication and control of regulatory feedback[xix]. Control is based on communication both within the system and with the external environment and influences the actions of the system to bring it into some desired future state or to maintain homeostasis. Cybernetics includes the concepts of autoregulation and feedback[xx].
The Basics of Cybernetics: http://www.smithsrisca.demon.co.uk/cybernetics.html
American Society for Cybernetics: http://www.asc-cybernetics.org/
[i] NIH Stem Cell Information Glossary [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services (US); [updated 2005 August; cited 2005 September 27]. Available from: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/glossary.asp .
The study of neural development draws on both neuroscience and developmental biology to describe the cellular and molecular mechanisms by which complex nervous systems emerge during embryonic development and throughout life. It studies how the ectodermally-derived central nervous system and mesodermally-derived peripheral nervous system develops into adulthood. Developmental neuroscience uses many different animal models, including the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster, zebrafish Danio rerio, Xenopus laevis tadpoles, and the worm Caenorhabditis elegans[i].
Evolutionary biology is a subfield of biology concerned with the origin and descent of species, as well as their change over time, i.e. their evolution. One who studies evolutionary biology is known as an evolutionary biologist, or less frequently evolutionist[i].
Evolutionary biology is an interdisciplinary field because it includes scientists from a wide range of both field and lab oriented disciplines. For example, it generally includes scientists who may have a specialist training in particular organisms such as mammalogy, ornithology, or herpetology, but use those organisms as case studies to answer general questions in evolution. It also generally includes paleontologists and geologists who use fossils to answer questions about the tempo and mode of evolution, as well as theoreticians in areas such as population genetics. Evolutionary biology’s frameworks of ideas and conceptual tools are now finding application in the study of a range of subjects from computing to nanotechnology[ii].
The development and application of global (genome- wide or system- wide) experimental approaches to assess gene function by making use of the information and reagents provided by structural genomics [in the original more limited sense of construction of high- resolution genetic, physical and transcript maps of an organism]. It is characterized by high throughput or large- scale experimental methodologies combined with statistical and computational analysis of the results. The fundamental strategy is to expand the scope of biological investigation from studying single genes or proteins to studying all genes or proteins at once in a systematic fashion[i].
[i] Phil Hieter and Mark Boguski “Functional Genomics: It’s All How You Read It” Science 278: 601- 602, October 24, 1997
Genetic engineering, genetic modification (GM), and gene splicing are terms for the process of manipulating genes, usually outside the organism’s normal reproductive process. It involves the isolation, manipulation and reintroduction of DNA into cells or model organisms, usually to express a protein. The aim is to introduce new characteristics or attributes physiologically or physically, such as making a crop resistant to a herbicide, introducing a novel trait, or producing a new protein or enzyme. Examples can include the production of human insulin through the use of modified bacteria, the production of erythropoietin in Chinese Hamster Ovary cells, and the production of new types of experimental mice such as the OncoMouse (cancer mouse) for research, through genetic redesign[i].
Since a protein is specified by a segment of DNA called a gene, future versions of that protein can be modified by changing the gene’s underlying DNA. One way to do this is to isolate the piece of DNA containing the gene, precisely cut the gene out, and then reintroduce (splice) the gene into a different DNA segment. Daniel Nathans and Hamilton Smith received the 1978 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their isolation of restriction endonucleases, which are able to cut DNA at specific sites. Together with ligase, which can join fragments of DNA together, restriction enzymes formed the initial basis of recombinant DNA technology[ii].
Developing new and better tools to make gene hunts faster, cheaper and practical for any scientist was a primary goal of the Human Genome Project (HGP). One of these tools is genetic mapping, the first step in isolating a gene. Genetic mapping – also called linkage mapping – can offer firm evidence that a disease transmitted from parent to child is linked to one or more genes. It also provides clues about which chromosome contains the gene and precisely where it lies on that chromosome[iii].
Genetic maps have been used successfully to find the single gene responsible for relatively rare inherited disorders, like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy. Maps have also become useful in guiding scientists to the many genes that are believed to interact to bring about more common disorders, such as asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and psychiatric conditions[iv].
Genetic Mapping Resources:
Fact Sheet on Genetic Mapping: http://www.genome.gov/10000715
The total hereditary material of a cell, comprising the entire chromosomal set found in each nucleus of a given species[v]. The normal human genome consists of 3 billion base pairs of DNA in each set of 23 chromosomes from one parent[vi].
More precisely, the genome of an organism is a complete DNA sequence of one set of chromosomes; for example, one of the two sets that a diploid individual carries in every somatic cell. The term genome can be applied specifically to mean the complete set of nuclear DNA (i.e., the nuclear genome) but can also be applied to organelles that contain their own DNA, as with the mitochondrial genome or the chloroplast genome. When people say that the genome of a sexually reproducing species has been “sequenced,” typically they are referring to a determination of the sequences of one set of autosomes and one of each type of sex chromosome, which together represent both of the possible sexes. Even in species that exist in only one sex, what is described as “a genome sequence” may be a composite from the chromosomes of various individuals. In general use, the phrase genetic makeup is sometimes used conversationally to mean the genome of a particular individual or organism. The study of the global properties of genomes of related organisms is usually referred to as genomics, which distinguishes it from genetics which generally studies the properties of single genes or groups of genes[vii].
Genomics is the study of an organism’s genome and the use of the genes. It deals with the systematic use of genome information, associated with other data, to provide answers in biology, medicine, and industry[viii]. See also comparative genomics and functional genomics.
A genetic algorithm (GA) is a search technique used in computer science to find approximate solutions to optimization and search problems. Genetic algorithms are a particular class of evolutionary algorithms that use techniques inspired by evolutionary biology such as inheritance, mutation, selection, and crossover (also called recombination)[ix].
Genetic algorithms are typically implemented as a computer simulation in which a population of abstract representations (called chromosomes) of candidate solutions (called individuals) to an optimization problem evolves toward better solutions. Traditionally, solutions are represented in binary as strings of 0s and 1s, but different encodings are also possible. The evolution starts from a population of completely random individuals and happens in generations. In each generation, the fitness of the whole population is evaluated, multiple individuals are stochastically selected from the current population (based on their fitness), and modified (mutated or recombined) to form a new population. The new population is then used in the next iteration of the algorithm[x].
The study of hereditary and the patterns of genetic inheritance among organisms[xi]. Heredity and variations form the basis of genetics. Humans applied knowledge of genetics in prehistory with the domestication and breeding of plants and animals. In modern research, genetics provides important tools for the investigation of the function of a particular gene, e.g., analysis of genetic interactions. Within organisms, genetic information generally is carried in chromosomes, where it is represented in the chemical structure of particular DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) molecules[xii].
Genetics determines much (but not all) of the appearance of organisms, including humans, and possibly how they act. Environmental differences and random factors also play a part. Monozygotic (“identical”) twins, a clone resulting from the early splitting of an embryo, have the same DNA, but different personalities and fingerprints[xiii].
Everything You Wanted to Know about Genetics: http://www.newscientist.com/channel/life/genetics
Latest Genetics News: http://www.bionews.in/index.php/archives/category/genetics//
Human Genome Project:
The Human Genome Project, which was led at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by the National Human Genome Research Institute, produced a very high-quality version of the human genome sequence that is freely available in public databases. That international project was successfully completed in April 2003, under budget and more than two years ahead of schedule[i].
The sequence is not that of one person, but is a composite derived from several individuals. Therefore, it is a “representative” or generic sequence. To ensure anonymity of the DNA donors, more blood samples (nearly 100) were collected from volunteers than were used, and no names were attached to the samples that were analyzed. Thus, not even the donors knew whether their samples were actually used[ii].
The Human Genome Project was designed to generate a resource that could be used for a broad range of biomedical studies. One such use is to look for the genetic variations that increase risk of specific diseases, such as cancer, or to look for the type of genetic mutations frequently seen in cancerous cells. More research can then be done to fully understand how the genome functions and to discover the genetic basis for health and disease[iii].
Immunology is the science of molecular self-defense of organisms against infections. It deals with the immune system, a complex organ that produces both cells and proteins involved in detecting and destroying foreign molecules and microorganisms (the ‘non-self’). It is most elaborate in mammals. The immune cells are white blood cells, originate from the bone marrow and mature in the lymph system. Some of these cells produce antibodies (proteins) that circulate in the blood as a result of a detected infection. These antibodies can be produced for a very long time after the initial infection and are the basis of immunity against further infection by the same microorganism (e.g. flu vaccine). If the microorganism mutates, as if often the case, immunity is no longer given and a new response must be provided by the immune system. In order to avoid costly development of antibodies, the innate immune system provides a broad and less specific protection against a large class of pathogens. Sometimes, the immune system overreacts and destroys cells of the body (the ‘self’). The result is an autoimmune disease. Common autoimmune diseases are arthritis, lupus, and type I or juvenile diabetes. There are no known cures for autoimmune disease except for immune system suppressant and pain relievers[i].
Kinesiology is the scientific study of human movement[i]. It is a method of evaluating the function of the body on all levels. Kinesiology works through testing muscle strength in response to a “question” that is presented to the body. This technique was originally developed by a chiropractor in the 1960′s and has since been incorporated into the practice of many disciplines, including health, education and psychology[ii].
Kinetics is the science of measuring changes, of assessing rates of movements and flow. In biology, kinetics is concerned with enzyme kinetics, the rate of how proteins help catalyze a chemical reactions. Another application of kinetics is the rate of flow of molecules in solution by diffusion or in an energy field (such as charges in an electric field, or mass in a gravitational field). Flux rates of molecules across biological membranes are also studied by kinetics[iii].
Materials Science is based on the physics and chemistry of the solid state and embraces all aspects of engineering materials, including metals and their alloys, ceramic materials such as glasses, bricks and porcelain insulators, polymers such as plastics and rubbers together with semiconducting and composite material. Materials Science extends from the extraction of the materials from their mineral sources and their refining and fabrication into finished products; it examines their chemical, crystal, molecular and electronic structure because structure influences not only a material’s magnetic and electronic characteristics but also its mechanical properties such as strength; it studies the degradation of materials in service by wear, corrosion and oxidation and is concerned with developing methods of combating these; it considers the proper selection of materials for particular applications and the development of new materials for today’s sophisticated technology[i].
Microbiology is the study of microorganisms, including viruses, prokaryotes and simple eukaryotes[ii]. Although much is now known in the field of microbiology, advances are being made regularly. In actual fact, the most common estimates suggest that we have studied only about 1% of all of the microbes in any given environment. While microbes are often viewed negatively due to their association with many human illnesses, microbes are also responsible for many beneficial processes such as industrial fermentation (e.g. the production of alcohol and dairy products), antibiotic production and as vehicles for cloning in higher organisms such as plants[iii].
Molecular engineering is any means of manufacturing molecules. It may be used to create, on an extremely small scale, most typically one at a time, new molecules which may not exist in nature, or be stable beyond a very narrow range of conditions.
Today this is an extremely difficult process, requiring manual manipulation of molecules using such devices as a scanning tunneling microscope. Eventually it is expected to exploit life-like self-replicating ‘helper molecules’ that are themselves engineered. Thus the field can be seen as a precision form of chemical engineering that includes protein engineering, the creation of protein molecules, a process that occurs naturally in biochemistry, e.g., prion reproduction. However, it provides far more control than genetic modification of an existing genome, which must rely strictly on existing biochemistry to express genes as proteins, and has little power to produce any non-proteins.
[ii] Microbiology (2005). Nature. Retrieved November 15, 2005, from
A technology that creates small materials at the scale of molecules by manipulating single atoms. The name nano comes from the size of molecules which is measured in nanometers – or one billionth of a meter (0.000000001 meter). The dimension of single atoms is ten fold smaller. The molecular processes of life, particularly the activity of proteins (enzymes) and the self-organizing behavior of many biological molecules has greatly inspired nanotechnology and molecular motors (i.e. protein complexes) could be considered the result of nature’s nanotechnology[i].
Nanotechnology holds promise in the quest for ever-more-powerful computers and communications devices. Its application in medical science includes ‘nanorobots,’ which are programmable antibodies selectively seeking out and destroying pathogens[ii].
Neural Engineering is an emerging interdisciplinary field of research that uses engineering techniques to investigate the function and manipulate the behavior of the central or peripheral nervous systems. The field draws heavily on the fields of computational neuroscience, experimental neuroscience, clinical neurology, electrical engineering and signal processing of living neural tissue, and encompasses elements from robotics, computer engineering, tissue engineering, materials science, and nanotechnology[iii].
Prominent goals in the field include restoration and augmentation of human function via direct interactions between the nervous system and artificial devices. Current research is focused on understanding the coding and processing of information in the sensory and motor systems, quantifying how this processing is altered in the pathological state, and how it can be manipulated through interactions with artificial devices including brain-computer interfaces and neuroprosthetics[iv].
Neural Engineering Resources:
Journal of Neural Engineering: http://www.iop.org/EJ/journal/JNE
In general, a neural network is composed of a group or groups of physically connected or functionally associated neurons. A single neuron can be connected to many other neurons and the total number of neurons and connections in a network can be extremely large. Connections, called synapses, are usually formed from axons to dendrites, though dendrodentritic microcircuits and other connections are possible. Apart from the electrical signalling, there are other forms of signaling that arise from neurotransmitter diffusion, which have an effect on electrical signaling. Thus, like other biological networks, neural networks are extremely complex. While a detailed description of neural systems seems currently unattainable, progress is made towards a better understanding of basic mechanisms[v].
Artificial intelligence and cognitive modeling try to simulate some properties of neural networks. While similar in their techniques, the former has the aim of solving particular tasks, while the latter aims to build mathematical models of biological neural systems[vi].
Neuroimaging includes the use of various techniques to either directly or indirectly image the structure, function, or pharmacology of the brain. It is a relatively new discipline within medicine and neuroscience. It falls into two broad categories: structural imaging and functional imaging. The former deals with the overall structure of the brain and the precise diagnosis of intracranial disease and injury. The latter is used for neurological and cognitive science research and building brain-computer interfaces. It enables, for example, the processing of sensory information coming to the brain and of commands going from the brain to the organism to be “lit up” or visualized directly instead of by simple clinical inference[vii].
Neurology is a branch of medicine dealing with disorders of the nervous system. Physicians specializing in the field of neurology are called neurologists and are trained to diagnose, treat, and manage patients with neurological disorders[viii]. Neurologists work with brain and nervous disorders including such things as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Alzheimer’s, brain surgery, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, head and brain injury, headaches, Huntington’s disease, migraines, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, neurological tumors, Parkinson’s disease, spinal injuries, and stroke[ix].
American Academy of Neurology: http://www.aan.com/professionals/index.cfma=0&fc=1#
Neuroprosthetics is an area of neuroscience concerned with neural prostheses, that is, artificial devices used to replace damaged or missing parts of the brain. The neuroprosthetic seeing the most widespread use is the cochlear implant, which is in approximately 85,000 people worldwide as of 2005[x]. A cochlear implant is a surgically implanted hearing aid that can help provide a sense of sound to a person who is profoundly deaf or severely hard of hearing. The cochlear implant is often referred to as a bionic ear. Unlike other kinds of hearing aids, the cochlear implant doesn’t amplify sound, but works by directly stimulating any functioning auditory nerves inside the cochlea with electrical impulses. External components of the cochlear implant include a microphone, speech processor and transmitter[xi].
Neuroscience is a field of study which deals with the structure, function, development, genetics, biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology and pathology of the nervous system. The study of behavior and learning is also a division of neuroscience[xii].
The concern of neuroscience includes such diverse topics as:
- the operation of neurotransmitters at the synapse
- the biological mechanisms that underlie learning (both declarative learning and motor learning)
- how genes contribute to neural development in the embryo and throughout life
- the operation of relatively simpler neural structures of other organisms like marine snails
- and the structure and functioning of complex neural circuits in perceiving, remembering, and speaking.[xiii]
The Society for Neuroscience: http://www.sfn.org/
Neuroscience News: http://www.neurosciencenews.com/
The field of study which focuses on applications of light. Optical engineers design instruments such as fiber optics, lasers, microscopes, telescope, and other equipment that utilizes the properties of light[i].
The maintenance or growth of organ primordia or the whole or parts of an organ in vitro [in a laboratory test tube or artificial environment] in a way that may allow differentiation and preservation of the architecture and/or function of the organ[ii]. Organ culture is a development from tissue culture methods of research, the organ culture is able to accurately model functions of an organ in various states and conditions by the use of the actual in vitro organ itself[iii].
The study of musculoskeletal diseases and injuries. It not only deals with the mechanics of the human body, and other factors, such as pathology, genetics, that affect the musculoskeletal functioning[iv].
[i] Optical engineering (2005). SPIE. Retrieved November 15, 2005, from http://www.spie.org/
[iv] Orthopedics (2005). Orthopedic Research Society. Retrieved November 15, 2005, from
The study of the structural and functional changes in cells, tissues and organs that underlie disease. It is a form of science and a branch of medicine that involves testing samples in a medical laboratory and diagnosing health problems from their evidence. Pathologists are skilled in interpreting test results and physical evidence[i].
A branch of biology that deals with the functions and activities of life or of living matter (as organs, tissues, or cells) and of the physical and chemical phenomena involved; the organic processes and phenomena of an organism or any of its parts or of a particular bodily process[ii].
A technique used in the production of proteins with new or artificial amino acid sequences[iii]. Protein Engineering Technology will often be used in conjunction with genetic modification to improve existing proteins, usually enzymes, and to create proteins not found in nature. These new and improved proteins will encourage the development of ecologically sustainable industrial processes because they are renewable, biodegradable resources[iv].
There are two general strategies for protein engineering. The first is known as rational design, in which the scientist uses detailed knowledge of the structure and function of the protein to make desired changes. This has the advantage of being generally inexpensive and easy, since site-directed mutagenesis techniques are well-developed. However, there is a major drawback in that detailed structural knowledge of a protein is often unavailable, and even when it is available, it can be extremely difficult to predict the effects of various mutations[v].
The second strategy is known as directed evolution. This is where random mutagenesis is applied to a protein, and a selection regime is used to pick out variants that have the desired qualities. Further rounds of mutation and selection are then applied. This method mimics natural evolution and generally produces superior results to rational design. An additional technique known as DNA shuffling mixes and matches pieces of successful variants in order to produce better results. This process mimics recombination that occurs naturally during sexual reproduction. The great advantage of directed evolution techniques is that they require no prior structural knowledge of a protein, nor it is necessary to be able to predict what effect a given mutation will have. Indeed, the results of directed evolution experiments are often surprising in that desired changes are often caused by mutations that no one would have expected. The drawback is that they require high-throughput, which is not feasible for all proteins. Large amounts of recombinant DNA must be mutated and the products screened for desired qualities. The sheer number of variants often requires expensive robotic equipment to automate the process. Furthermore, not all desired activities can be easily screened for[vi].
Rational design and directed evolution techniques are not mutally exclusive; good researchers will often apply both. In the future, more detailed knowledge of protein structure and function, as well as advancements in high-throughput technology, will greatly expand the capabilities of protein engineering[vii].
Proteomics is the large-scale study of proteins, particularly their structures and functions. This term was coined to make an analogy with genomics, and while it is often viewed as the “next step”, proteomics is much more complicated than genomics. Most importantly, while the genome is a rather constant entity, the proteome differs from cell to cell and is constantly changing through its biochemical interactions with the genome and the environment. One organism has radically different protein expression in different parts of its body, in different stages of its life cycle and in different environmental conditions.
The entirety of proteins in existence in an organism throughout its life cycle, or on a smaller scale the entirety of proteins found in a particular cell type under a particular type of stimulation, are referred to as the proteome of the organism or cell type respectively.
Since proteins play a central role in the life of an organism, proteomics is instrumental in discovery of biomarkers, such as markers that indicate a particular disease[viii].
Introduction to Proteomics: http://www.childrenshospital.org/cfapps/research/data_admin/Site602/mainpageS602P0.html
[i] Pathology (2005). American Society for Clinical Pathology. Retrieved November 15, 2005, from http://www.ascp.org/s
Numerical tabulations and statistical comparisons made possible by systematic surveys, observations, or analysis of records. Data are used to test hypotheses and identify the strength of patterns observed using qualitative methods[i].
The physical theory of the composition and behavior of atoms and subatomic particles; explains the duality of light as wave and particle, the existence of chemical bonds, and radioactivity[ii].
Radiography is the creation of images by exposing a photographic film or other image receptor to X-rays. Since X-rays penetrate solid objects, but are weakened by them depending on the object’s composition, the resulting picture reveals the internal structure of the object. Medical radiography is undertaken by a specially trained professional called a radiographer[i].
Rehabilitation engineering is the systematic application of technologies, engineering methodologies, or scientific principles to meet the need of and address the barriers confronted by people with disabilities in areas which include education, rehabilitation, employment, transportation, independent living, and recreation[ii].
Rehabilitation Engineering Resources:
Rehabilitation Engineering & Assistive Technology Society of North America: http://www.resna.org/
Sensory neuroscience is a subfield of neuroscience which tries to understand the behaviour of neurons in sensory systems. Since the neural code is unknown, it is difficult to begin understanding the brain by looking at the behaviour of more abstract neurons. Since it is possible to experimentally control the stimulus a sensory system experiences, by recording responses from neurons while exposing sensory systems to stimuli it may be possible to gain insights into how the outside world is represented. Some scientists hope that knowing how information about the outside world is represented in the brain will be an important stepping stone in our understanding of how the brain as a whole functions[i].
Stem cells in humans and animals are primal undifferentiated cells that retain the ability to divide and differentiate into other cell types. In higher plants this function is the defining property of the meristematic cells. Stem cells have the ability to act as a repair system for the body, because they can divide and differentiate, replenishing other cells as long as the host organism is alive[ii].
Stem cells have two important characteristics that distinguish them from other types of cells. First, they are unspecialized cells that renew themselves for long periods through cell division. The second is that under certain physiologic or experimental conditions, they can be induced to become cells with special functions such as the beating cells of the heart muscle or the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas[iii].
Stem Cells: Adult:
An undifferentiated cell found in a differentiated tissue that can renew itself and (with certain limitations) differentiate to yield all the specialized cell types of the tissue from which it originated[iv].
Stem Cells: Embryonic:
Cultured cells obtained from the undifferentiated inner mass cells of an early stage human embryo (sometimes called a blastocyst, which is an embryo that is between 50 to 150 cells). Embryonic stem cell research is “thought to have much greater developmental potential than adult stem cells,” according to the National Institutes of Health[v]. Research using embryonic stem cells remains at the zenith of stem cell science because, unlike somatic cells, embryonic stem cells are totipotent. However, research using stem cells derived from the human embryo is still in the basic research phase, as these stem cells were first isolated in 1998 (at least for humans), whereas adult stem cells have been studied since the 1960s[vi]. Research with embryonic stem cells derived from humans is controversial because, in order to start a stem cell ‘line’ or lineage, the destruction of a human embryo and/or therapeutic cloning is usually required. Some believe this to be a slippery slope to reproductive cloning and tantamount to the objectification of a potential human being. In an attempt to overcome these moral, political and ethical hurdles, medical researchers have been experimenting with alternative techniques of obtaining embryonic stem cells by extraction, which does not involve cloning and/or the destruction of a human embryo[vii].
Systems neuroscience is the study of neural circuit function in intact organisms. This research area is concerned with how nerve cells behave when connected together to form neural networks that perform a common function: vision, for example, or voluntary movement. When we speak of the mechanisms of the “visual system” and the “motor system,” each of which possesses its own distinct circuitry within the brain, we are referring to systems neuroscience. At this level of analysis, neuroscientists study how different neural circuits analyze sensory information, form perceptions of the external worlds, make decisions, and execute movements. Researchers concerned with systems neuroscience focus on the vast space that exists between molecular and cellular approaches to the brain and the study of high-level mental functions such as language, memory, and self-awareness[viii].
Tissue engineering involves the functional remodeling and regeneration of tissue inside the body (in vivo) and the growth of functional tissues and organs in the laboratory (in vitro) for implantation in the body to repair, replace, maintain, or enhance tissue and organ function[i].
Langer and Vacanti defined tissue engineering as “an interdisciplinary field that applies the principles of engineering and life sciences toward the development of biological substitutes that restore, maintain, or improve tissue function”, and identified three general strategies employed in tissue engineering: use of isolated cells or cell substitutes, use of tissue-inducing substances, and use of cells placed on or within matrices. However, actual usage of the term reflects an ongoing ambiguity in scope and focus, notably with respect to how far applications can stray into purely molecular (rather than cellular) approaches and still be considered tissue engineering, and with respect to the role of hybrid and external organ replacement devices. Experts interviewed in the study used the recently-coined terms “reparative medicine” and “regenerative medicine” largely as synonyms of “tissue engineering.”[ii]
[i] Department of Health and Human Services: National Institutes of Health: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering