Biophysics - PHY00033M

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  • Department: Physics
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Steven Quinn
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2019-20

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2019-20 to Spring Term 2019-20

Module aims

Interdisciplinary physical/life sciences research is emerging as a prime area in academia and industry. Key to recent advances has been development of pioneering experimental physical science techniques and methods of theoretical analysis/modelling applied to addressing challenging questions from the biosciences. This modern armoury of the physicist constitutes a toolbox which can be used to tackle a multitude of bioscience questions.

In this module we will review in detail several important modern physical science concepts, models, laws, tools and techniques that can be applied to addressing real biological questions, with a thorough discussion of the underlying physics. Physical science methods historically have been key to providing enormous breakthroughs in our understanding of fundamental biology - stemming from the early development of optical microscopy in understanding of the cellular nature of life, through to complex structural biology techniques to elucidate the shape of vital biomolecules including essential proteins and DNA, the coding molecule of genes.

In the first half of this module we will introduce the key biological macromolecules, the forces that are involved in maintaining their structure and how structure is determined. More advanced topics, based upon students’ knowledge of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics will be addressed, including the helix-coil transition, protein folding, ligand binding, allostery, self-assembly and biomechanics.

More recently, physical science developments have involved methods to study single cells in their native context at the single- molecule level with key improvements in temporal and spatial resolution permitting dynamic and mechanistic biological information to be investigated with unprecedented precision, as well as providing ground-breaking developments in areas of artificial tissue bioengineering and synthetic biology, and biosensing and disease diagnosis.

In the second half of this module we will in particular discuss tools and techniques that, broadly, permit the detection and characterization of biological material using (i) visible light, (ii) non-visible electromagnetic radiation, and (iii) methods used to manipulate and quantify biological forces, with particular emphasis throughout placed on real applications of the physical science tools and techniques. Examples of such tools which will be discussed include ‘super-resolution’ optical microscopy, advanced fluorescence imaging methods, optical and magnetic tweezers for single biological molecule manipulation, ion channel measurements in living cells, Raman spectroscopy of biological matter, surface probe microscopy techniques, nanophotonics for biosensing, digital holography of swimming cells, modern electron microscopy tools, as well as non-linear spectroscopy approaches. We will also discuss the core physics concepts of several fundamental biological processes which are studied using these modern biophysics tools and techniques. Lectures will focus on both the core concepts of biophysics tool and techniques and on real research applications, including ‘guest’ lectures given by expert researchers in several different specific areas of biophysics, in addition to core lectures. Lecture material will be available to download on VLE, but lectures will include worked-through problem solving and active discussion sessions and so physical attendance at the lectures is strongly encouraged.

Module learning outcomes

The module will focus on a number of concepts, models, laws, tools and techniques of physical science that underpin biophysical methods. It will address a broad range of challenging biological questions. The aims of this module are to assist students in gaining an understanding of:

  • The use of physical concepts and laws to produce models of biological systems.
  • Quantitative analyses of these models.
  • Critical analysis of the validity of the assumptions made in these models and their impact on the validity of the results.
  • The physical basis of experimental techniques used to study the systems introduced and the key results.
  • The key features and biological significance of the systems introduced.
  • The breadth of modern physical science tools and techniques used to investigate biology.
  • The key physical principles behind several important biological processes of living matter.
  • Real industrial and biomedical applications of modern biophysical tools and techniques.


Task Length % of module mark
University - closed examination
Biophysics: Molecular Biophysics
1.5 hours 50
University - closed examination
Biophysics: Tools & Techniques
1.5 hours 50

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
University - closed examination
Biophysics: Molecular Biophysics
1.5 hours 50
University - closed examination
Biophysics: Tools & Techniques
1.5 hours 50

Module feedback

You will receive the marks for the individual exams from your supervisor. Detailed model answers will be provided on the intranet. You should discuss your performance with your supervisor. The marked scripts will not be returned to you.

Individual meetings with supervisor will take place where you can discuss your academic progress in detail.

Indicative reading

Leake MC: Biophysics: tools and techniques (CRC Press, 1st Ed, 2016)

Leake MC: Single-Molecule Cellular Biophysics (CUP, 1st Ed, 2013)

Alberts A et al: Molecular Biology of the Cell (Garland Science, 6th Ed, 2014)

Nelson P: Biological Physics: Energy, Information, Life (W H Freeman, 2004)

Phillips R, J. Kondev and J. Theriot: Physical Biology of the Cell (Garland Science, 2009)

Sneppen K and Zocchi G: Physics in Molecular Biology (CUP, 2005)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.