The 10 Most Interesting Biology Research Topics
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If you ask any biology expert whether their research subject is interesting, of course they'll say yes. Even moss can be fascinating when you look at it under a magnifying glass. Some biology topics are easier for non-biologists to get more excited about than others, though.
Whether you're looking for a research topic for a college paper or an area to specialize in if you're majoring in biology, here are some of the most interesting things going on in the biology world right now.
1. CRISPR and Genetic Engineering
Normally, we think of our DNA as being set in stone. But what if it isn't? What if you could literally change your DNA?
Scientists have only recently figured out how to use CRISPR to edit DNA sequences.
That's what CRISPR promises. Short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat, CRISPR is essentially a search and cut/paste function all rolled into one, but for DNA. This organizational pattern appears naturally in bacteria, and scientists have only recently figured out how to use it to edit DNA sequences in other organisms — including humans.
CRISPR is taking off in a big way due to its staggering potential. Imagine if you could cure genetic diseases, change your eye color, or make people permanently resistant to tricky viruses like HIV. It's easy to see the potential for life-changing benefits and great harm at the same time, and that's why there's currently so much excitement about CRISPR.
2. Epidemiology and Coronavirus
Epidemiology is the study of how diseases spread in populations. Now that we're in one of the largest pandemics in recent memory, it's easy to see why this is such an interesting topic. Finding a vaccine and ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has become the single greatest all-hands-on-deck effort of our time.
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, epidemiology intrigued scientists. Epidemiologists are often thought of as a modern-day Indiana Jones because they work in remote jungles and chase dangerous and terrifying diseases like Ebola all around the world.
If you haven't heard of prions, make sure you're sitting down. These infectious-disease-causing agents are responsible for things like mad cow disease, chronic wasting disease, and (possibly) Alzheimer's disease.
They work by essentially turning brains into Swiss cheese. Prions aren't fully living organisms like bacteria or parasites; rather, they're bits of misshapen proteins that cause other proteins to become deformed in a chain reaction until the brain is literally full of holes.
Because prions aren't truly alive, there's no real way to "kill" them. As a result, they can persist in the environment and stay contagious for years, even surviving normal sterilization techniques at hospitals and labs. Scientists are trying to understand how prions work on a basic level, and how to prevent them from accumulating in the environment and causing disease.
4. Climate Change
Despite what some governments might think, climate change has emerged as one of the most pressing issues of our time. Scientists have measured the chemical signal from greenhouse gases and determined that it's a direct result of human industrial activity.
Climate change is one of the most pressing issues of our time.
The battle against climate change seems daunting. First, scientists must convince the general public — especially legislators — that the phenomenon exists. Then, there's the huge task of identifying possible solutions.
With global consequences, climate change scientist is a job that's not likely to end within our lifetimes, meaning there's plenty of room for new environmental specialists.
5. Cancer Biology
About 2 out of every 5 people in the U.S. will develop cancer in their lifetimes, according to the National Cancer Institute.
What scientists are learning now is that "cancer" is more of an umbrella term for many different diseases that all have the same outcome: uncontrolled cell growth and, eventually, death. It's not as simple as finding the solution to one disease because cancer is actually many diseases, each with its own cause, progression, outcome, and treatment.
Now that scientists know more about cancer, the path forward is clear: More research on each type of cancer is needed before we can understand and ultimately eradicate it.
6. Behavioral Economics
You know you should pay off your debt and save more money, but most of us don't do that. Why not? And what are scientifically backed ways that we can learn how to do these things?
Behavioral economics is about how your biology affects both your finances and happiness.
This is what the captivating new field of behavioral economics aims to answer. The multidisciplinary approach combines two vastly different areas — economics and behavior — in an effort to understand how humans can live happier lives.
One major paper on the topic linked peak happiness levels to an income of around $75,000. Yet in 2018, the median household income fell short of that mark by almost $15,000. In other words, behavioral economics is the study of how your biology affects your finances and happiness.
7. Endangered Species Recovery
It's estimated that up to 8,700 species go extinct every year. At this rate, we're due for the biggest mass extinction since the time of the dinosaurs.
And it's not just pandas, caribou, and other cuddly things that are dying out — many of the smaller organisms that keep the ecosystem running smoothly are disappearing, as are "ugly" animals that are still very important to the environment.
Even though the public is generally supportive of recovery efforts, the government conservationists responsible for this work almost always face budget shortfalls. If you're willing to deal with the challenges of working as a wildlife biologist, it can be a highly rewarding career.
We haven't discovered life outside of Earth — yet. Astronomers have crunched the numbers and found overwhelming support for the idea that somewhere out in the cosmos, there's a good chance life exists. Astrobiologists study what those life forms might look like, such as how they reproduce and survive.
Even before we find extraterrestrial life, though, there's plenty of work for astrobiologists to do now with preparing current Earth-dwellers for when we'll eventually jet off this planet. Astrobiologists study things like how gravity affects astronauts' bones, how plants grow in space, and what happens to circadian rhythms on planets with a different day/night cycle.
9. Synthetic Biology
Evolution hasn't created the perfect version of everything yet, but it's come pretty close in a lot of areas. There are lessons we can learn about all kinds of things from the natural world, such as how to design the quietest aircraft by studying owl feathers.
Other synthetic biologists focus on how to redesign organisms to perform useful tasks. For example, you could specialize in engineering microorganisms to produce medical-grade insulin or help with bioremediation efforts in polluted areas.
What if I told you that the stresses your grandparents endured, such as famines, wars, and inequality, could still be affecting you today through your genes? It's not such a far-fetched idea when you consider the field of epigenetics.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are inherited and whether they're active or inactive.
Epigenetics is the study of how genes are inherited in either a switched-on or switched-off state. Even though you inherit certain genes from your ancestors, some might not actually be "turned on" despite being present in your DNA. Just like a light switch, genes that have been "turned off" are technically inactive.
Epigenetics is a relatively new field of biology that adds a whole new layer of complexity to the already exciting realm of genetic research.
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Never Stop Learning
These 10 biology topics are some of the hottest areas in scientific research today, but don't limit yourself — there's more than enough knowledge to satisfy a curious mind in any field. You might just have to look a little closer under the microscope to find an entirely new world.
Feature Image: sanjeri / Getty Images