Comparative Physiology and Biochemistry

David W. Towle, Department of Biology
Lake Forest College, Lake Forest, Illinois

What themes unify comparative physiology and biochemistry?

The questions that fascinate comparative physiologists and biochemists focus on how organisms of all kinds function. How do plants, animals and microorganisms cope with environmental stress? What interesting mechanisms have evolved that allow organisms to thrive in difficult situations? Or even in everyday situations?

How diverse is the field of comparative physiology and biochemistry?

The field ranges from ecology to molecular biology, including aspects of marine biology, freshwater and terrestrial ecology as well as morphology, cell biology and development. The emphasis is on the whole organism but the questions are often asked at the level of tissues and cells and molecules. Integrating several levels of investigation is a hallmark of many scientists in the field.

How did you and other colleagues become interested in comparative physiology and biochemistry?

In many cases, the interest stems from a natural curiosity about how living things work and how they interact with their physical environment. A broad interest in many different species underlies the experimental approach, with a belief that much can be learned from the less conspicuous species on this planet.

Why is your field exciting?

Like any field of science, the discovery of new information makes it especially exciting. But comparative physiology and biochemistry is unique in the sense that we can bring interests from so many different directions. The interdisciplinary mix that often occurs can be intellectually explosive.

How does the study of comparative physiology and biochemistry help society? Why should the public care?

As we learn more and more about how living things function, we often discern unifying principles that unite humans with the rest of the living world. We see that humans are not apart from the world, but are a part of the world. Thus what we learn from nematodes and moss and sea anemones often helps us to understand ourselves more completely. Much of what we know about nerve function, for example, has come from studies on marine squid. Learning how crabs add calcium to their shells at each molt may help us to solve bone problems.

Even more importantly, people in this field often have the pulse of ecological disasters-in-the-making, working as they do with a variety of species, often in environments that are affected by human activity. Their work can sometimes predict and even prevent disastrous outcomes.

What is a typical day like?

In the academic world, most people in comparative physiology and biochemistry spend part of each day teaching, either in the classroom or the laboratory. They may also work individually with students and perhaps research assistants, designing and carrying out experiments in the field and in the laboratory. Interpreting the results of each experiment hopefully leads to further creativity in research, with plenty of room for imagination and initiative. Writing articles for scientific journals, perhaps writing chapters or whole books, and writing grant proposals often occupy substantial amounts of time. But for many people in this area, the real joy comes in interacting with the organism being studied, asking questions of nature that may produce interpretable answers. Little can match the excitement generated by a new discovery!

What other jobs are there in comparative
physiology and biochemistry besides those in academia or research labs?

Many corporations have become concerned about the environmental impact of their activities, and engage scientists to develop physiological tests that will measure the success or failure of their environmental controls. Because people in this field are often broadly trained and attuned to unique physiological adaptations in uncommonly studied species, they are also in demand in the areas of biotechnology and pharmaceutical research.