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Choosing what to study

Top ten biological discoveries

Biology is a fascinating and diverse subject area. If you’re thinking of studying biology, here are ten famous discoveries to inspire you.

Scientists Working on their Computers In Big Modern Laboratory

Aristotle: Classification of living things

384–322 BC

Ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, is often not considered when it comes to great biological discoveries, but his work on the classification of living things was revolutionary. Referred to as the 'Ladder of Life', Aristotle's classification system was in use up until the 19th century. He was the first person to recognise the relationships between species, and organise accordingly.

Galen: Early medical experimentation

129–161 AD

The life work of Greek physician, Galen, revolutionised the way in which medical research is conducted. Galen had a major influence on the development of many fields of medicine including anatomy, pathology, physiology and neurology. Notable discoveries include the identification of the differences between veins and arteries, and recognising that the larynx generates voice. Much of his hypotheses had scientific errors but his work in pioneering the field of medical research is undeniable. 

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek: Microbiology


Antonie van Leeuwenhoek is well known for his contributions to microscopy, and how he applied this to the field of biology. He revolutionised a technique for creating powerful lenses, which some speculate were able to magnify up to 500 times. Leeuwenhoek used the microscopes to find out more about the living world – his discoveries include bacteria, the vacuole of the cell and the banded pattern of muscle fibres.

Carl Linnaeus: Modern taxonomy


A botanist, physician and zoologist, Carl Linnaeus came up with the system of naming, ranking and classifying organisms that we still use today. It was his vast collection of specimens of plants, animals and shells that led him to think up a way of grouping and naming species. He separated all living things into three kingdoms – animals, plants and minerals – subdivided them into classes, then into orders and finally into genera and species. Take homo sapiens; homo is the genus and sapiens the species – a term that is still in use today.

Charles Darwin: Theory of evolution


Probably the most famous naturalist of all time, Charles Darwin's contribution to biology and society is beyond imagination. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, the existence of new species occurring via the process of natural selection. His theory of evolution was published in On the Origin of Species in 1859 and it caused quite the stir – he was disputing the long-held belief that all species had been created by God at the beginning of the world. Evolution by natural selection combined with Mendelian genetics is now accepted as the modern evolutionary synthesis and forms the foundations of much biological scientific endeavour. 

Gregor Mendel: Modern genetics


Gregor Mendel's extraordinary contribution didn't receive its just recognition until long after the friar's death. He used peas to discover and demonstrate the laws of genetic inheritance, coining the terms ‘dominant’ and ‘recessive’ genes in the process. The laws were rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century and provided the mechanism by which Darwin's theory of natural selection can occur. The two theories combine to form our current understanding of the evolutionary process.

Barbara McClintock: Jumping genes


American geneticist, Barbara McClintock, spent her career analysing maize, where she developed a technique for identifying and examining chromosomes individually. Despite it not being immediately recognised, her work made it possible for us to map human genomes. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983 for her discovery of transposition and how genes could turn their physical characteristics on and off.

Watson and Crick: Structure of DNA

1928; 1916–2004

James Watson and Francis Crick shot to fame in 1962 for their discovery of the structure of DNA, winning the medical Nobel Prize in the process. Their model of DNA (double helix) explains how DNA replicates, and hereditary info is coded and passed on. The discovery of structure has led to a much more developed understanding of function – used in disease diagnosis and treatment, forensics and more.

Jane Goodall: Understanding of chimpanzees


Our knowledge of wildlife and conservation has been transformed by Jane Goodall, the British ethologist. Best known for her career-long studies of chimpanzees, she discovered that the animals are omnivores and tool users. She’s a global leader in animal rights and was awarded a PhD degree from the University of Cambridge without her holding a bachelor’s degree.

Wilmut and Campbell: Cloning a mammal

1944; 1954–2012

In 1996, Keith Campbell and Ian Wilmut cloned a mammal, famously named Dolly the Sheep. The pair cloned Dolly using a single adult sheep cell and a process of nuclear transfer. Dolly died after only six years but cloning continues – although still not perfected and certainly not ready for human application – yet

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