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Unit information: Biophysics 321 in 2020/21

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Unit name Biophysics 321
Unit code PHYS31211
Credit points 10
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. McManus
Open unit status Not open

First and second year core and classical physics units.



School/department School of Physics
Faculty Faculty of Science


The role of Physics in the study of fundamental biological problems has a long and rich history; from the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA to cutting-edge diffraction-breaking microscopy techniques, the questions asked in the life sciences often find their answers in Physics. This unit will address the links between these disciplines and provide students with knowledge of biological concepts; how these concepts can be addressed using a Physics-based approach and exposure to a wide range of techniques commonly applied to the study of biological molecules, cells and organisms. The aims of the course are: to introduce students to the subject of biophysics; to introduce the study of biological systems from a physics perspective; to expose students to a range of techniques with a physics basis that can be used in the study of biological structures, systems and processes.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of this unit students will:

  • have a basic understanding of cell and molecular biology and how this can be related to concepts previously met in Physics
  • be aware of the energy requirements and thermodynamics of biological systems; be aware of rates of reactions in biology and describe the kinetics of biological systems
  • be aware of the forces and mechanical properties inherent in biological systems and how these inform biological function
  • be aware of a range of techniques commonly applied in experimental biophysics, which have a basis in Physics and how they are used for understanding biological structure and function. These may include examples from Xray crystallography and scattering, and neutron scattering; fluorescence techniques; microscopy; scanning probe microscopy techniques; optical tweezers
  • be able to describe the theory and application of at least two biophysical techniques in detail and show how they can be applied to solving a biological problem
  • be able to synthesise this knowledge to produce a review article which draws together knowledge of a protein, its role within the cell, the relationship between its structure and function and a technique (or techniques) used to study it.

Teaching details

The unit will be taught through a combination of

  • asynchronous online materials, including narrated presentations and worked examples
  • synchronous group problems classes, workshops, tutorials and/or office hours
  • asynchronous directed individual formative exercises and other exercises
  • guided, structured reading

Assessment Details

There is a project to be completed, a 1000 word report (30%) and the final exam will count for 70% of the unit mark and will be appropriate for an on-line, open book exam, designed to be robust against collusion or cheating to the greatest extent possible. This will be achieved by asking students for a narrative where students describe in their own words the relevant physics and how it applies to each problem.

Reading and References

Modern Biophysical Chemistry, PJ Walla Biophysics, R Glaser Intermolecular and Surface Forces, J Israelachvilli