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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.
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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?
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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