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Discoveries in Biology
The Story of Life: A Preview
Discoveries in Biology: The Course
• 3 credits
• No prerequisites
• Satisfies 3 of the at least 6 credits needed for
the Natural Science foundation courses in the
undergraduate curriculum
• The course will focus on important discoveries
in biology as a way of introducing students to
the concepts underlying life and their
applications in modern biotechnology
• Ornob Alam
• B.Sc. in Biological Science from Florida State
• Sc.M. in Molecular Microbiology and Immunology
from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
• Research:
– Immunomodulatory effects of testosterone in
response to influenza infection (at Johns Hopkins)
– Biochemical identification of cellulolytic bacteria and
optimization of cellulase activity (at IUB)
• The study of living organisms
• But what is life?

Smithsonian Magazine
• No universal agreement on what exactly
makes up life
• Most living organisms share certain features in
– Processing of nutrients and energy
– Ability to adapt
– Reproduction
– More to come later
Life On Earth
• Life is endlessly diverse…

• But have you ever wondered how or why?

• How did life on Earth come about?

Living Organisms
• Moths, oak trees, leopards, Vibrio cholerae, and
ringworms are all living organisms
Living Organisms
• How does each organism function individually,
and within the context of their environment?
• What happens when these normal systems
break down?
• Answering these and many other questions
are part of biologists’ continuing effort to
unravel the story of life
Why Biology?
• Even besides the fact that the story of life is so
cool, understanding basic biology is very
relevant to us
• Diseases like diabetes, cancer, and
tuberculosis often hold very immediate
relevance to us
• Biotechnology is increasingly a part of food
and pharmaceutical industries, healthcare,
and waste management
The Scientific Method
• Scientific knowledge is collected rigorously
(slowly, methodically, and carefully) using a
set of conventions collectively referred to as
the scientific method
• Basically the process of collecting knowledge
through empirical/ evidence-based testing,
re-testing, re-re-testing…
The Scientific Method
• Aristotle introduced the ideas of
induction (identifying principles
from observations) and deduction
(drawing further conclusions from
established principles)

• Ibn Sina emphasized the role of

experimentation in arriving at basic
or absolute truths
The Scientific Method
• Francis Bacon popularized the notion
of skepticism in the process of
investigating phenomena

Ultimately, while there is no formal agreement on the

specifics of the scientific method, these basic tenets have
led to the modern peer-review culture of rigorous
experimentation and verification
The Scientific Method




The Scientific Method
• A hypothesis is an explanation based on
observations, which is then used as a starting
point for scientific inquiry
• Experiments are designed to test hypotheses
• A verified hypothesis becomes a theory,
whose tenets and conclusions remain open to
further testing
The Art of the Experiment
• Experiments test hypotheses in a controlled
• Important concepts:
– Bias: Favoring or disfavoring something without
– Placebo effect: When a fake treatment improves a
patient’s condition because the patient expects it to
– Experiments test the effects of an independent
variable on dependent variables
– Controls are experimental duplicates in the absence
of the independent variable
Illustration through a Drug Trial



Single-Blind Trials



Double-Blind Trials


Drug X Placebo


Model Organisms
• Organisms that are chosen based on their
similarity to humans, and the ease of
experimentation in order to test hypotheses
• Mice, rats, flies, rhesus monkeys, and cell lines
are popular model organisms used in
biomedical research
Study Design
• To test our hypothesis, we design a study with
appropriate controls, and in a manner that
would allow us to statistically test the results
• Minimize bias by ensuring proper
representation of subgroups
Timeline of the Earth
From Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes
• The Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years
• That is difficult to visualize, so let us imagine
that the Earth is a year old, and we are at the
stroke of midnight on the 31st of December
• In that case, when did humans first appear?
• When did dinosaurs exist?
• When did life first evolve?
Timeline of the Earth
• January
• February
• March:
– Life first appeared on Earth in the form of
• April
• May
• June
Timeline of the Earth
• July
– Complex or eukaryotic cells first came into being
• August
• September
• October:
– Complex, multicellular organisms came into being around this time
• November:
– Plants became very common
• December:
– Flowers and mammals evolved some time early in December
– Dinosaurs (except birds) went extinct on the 26th
– Humans came into existence 30 minutes ago
In-Class Activity
• How would you find the prevalence of the
use of birth control pills in Bangladesh?
• Design an experiment to test the
effectiveness of a vaccine that protects
against malaria