skip to primary navigationskip to content

What is physiology?

Cells organs wholePhysiology is the branch of biology relating to the function of organs and organ systems, and how they work within the body to respond to challenges. It covers life from the single cell, where it overlaps with biochemistry and molecular biology, through questions about how individual organs work (e.g. heart, lungs, kidneys) right up to the whole-organism level, where physiologists tackle questions about hormonal influences on behaviour and the function of the brain. Physiology therefore has something to say about every aspect of life: our integrated approach makes physiologists invaluable contributors in studies ranging from genetics to psychology. Neuroscience is a branch of physiology, and this very important subdiscipline is covered within the Physiology of Organisms course.

In its applied aspects, physiology deals with the function and malfunction of parts of the human body with reference to health and disease (areas relating to medicine), how to improve crop yield (areas relating to plant sciences) as well as the practical problems of animal, plant and microbial performance and their responses to challenging conditions (areas relating to ecology).

In science at the moment, there is a tendency to look downwards rather than upwards, at molecular mechanisms in preference to the often less tractable problems posed by systems as a whole. Physiology is no exception, and the temptations to concentrate on molecular aspects of the subject - areas where new information is easier to come by, and where conceptual problems are less obvious - have never been stronger. But, as Research Councils are keen to emphasize, the largest gaps in our knowledge are often how the molecules translate into the function - and malfunction - of the organism as a whole. These questions are difficult to answer and sometimes, as in the case of the brain, difficult to formulate as well! Part of the training of a physiologist is to learn to think, argue and to see problems on a wider scale, without losing sight of the whole organism.