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Biology LibreTexts


Matter and Energy in Biology

Matter and Energy

The concepts of matter and energy are essential to all scientific disciplines. Yet, while ubiquitous and fundamental, these concepts are often amongst the most confounding for students. Take the concept of energy. The term is used in a variety of contexts in everyday life - “Can we move the couch tomorrow? I don’t have the energy.” “Hey dude! Turn the light off. We need to conserve energy.” “This is a great energy drink.” In many sciences classes, students are told that energy comes in different forms (i.e. kinetic, thermal, electrical, potential, etc.), making it difficult to understand exactly what energy “is”. In class, the concept of energy is also associated with a myriad of different equations, each with different variables, but that somehow all seem to end up having units of work. Hold on! Work? I thought we were talking about energy?! Given all the different contexts and sometimes seemingly contradictory treatments and definitions, it’s not hard to understand why these topics seem challenging for many students and in some cases end up turning them off of the fields that make heavy use of these ideas. While the concepts of matter and energy are most often associated with chemistry and physics, they are nevertheless central ideas in biology and we don’t shy away from this in BIS2A. Our instructional goals, however, are to help students develop a conceptual framework that will help them use the concepts of matter and energy to: 

  • successfully describe biological reactions and transformations; 
  • create models and hypotheses for “how things work” in biology that explicitly include matter and energy and; 
  • be scientifically correct and transferable to new problems and to other disciplines.

While there may be a couple of energy-related equations to learn and use in BIS2A, the main focus of the course will be on the robust development of the concepts of energy and matter and their use in the interpretation of biological phenomena


Motivation for Learning About Matter and Energy 

Discussions about matter and energy make many, but not all, BIS2A students a little apprehensive. After all, aren’t these topics that belong in chemistry or physics? However, the transformations of matter and energy transfer are not phenomena reserved for the chemists and physicists or even scientists and engineers more generally. Understanding, conceptualizing, and doing some basic accounting of transformations of matter and transfers of energy are fundamental skills regardless of occupation or academic training. The scientist may need more rigorous and systematic descriptions of these transformations than the artist but both make use of these skills at various points of their personal and or professional lives. Take the following examples:


Example 1: Matter and Energy Transformation in Global Warming

Let us for a moment consider a topic that affects us all, global warming. At its core lies a relatively simple model that is based on our understanding of energy in solar radiation, the transfer of this energy with matter on the Earth, and the role and cycling of key carbon containing gases in the Earth's atmosphere. In simple terms solar energy hits the earth and transfers energy to its surface, heating it. Some of this energy is transferred back into space. However, depending on the concentration of carbon dioxide (and other so-called greenhouse gases) different amounts of this energy may become “trapped” in the Earth’s atmosphere. Too little carbon dioxide and relatively little energy/heat is trapped - the Earth freezes and becomes inhospitable for life. Too much carbon dioxide and too much heat is trapped - the Earth overheats and becomes inhospitable for life. It stands to reason, therefore, that mechanisms (biological or other) that influence the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may be important to consider in the story of global warming and that developing a good understanding of global warming phenomena requires one to trace the flow of the carbon and oxygen (matter) through their different forms and the mechanisms by which energy is transferred to and from different components of the system.

Example 2: Muscle Contraction

Let us now consider a more personal example, the flexing of an arm starting from an extended position and ending in a flexed position. Like most processes, this one can be described and understood at various levels of detail: from the anatomical point of view where the system consists of muscles, skin, and bones to the molecular where the system is composed of individual interacting biomolecules. At whatever level of detail, if we want to create a story describing this process we know that: (a) the description must include an accounting for what happened to the matter in the system (this includes the change in position of the molecules making up the various parts of the arm and the fuel “burned” to move it) and (b) that some fuel was burned to initiate the movement and therefore, that any description of the process must also include an accounting change in the energy of the system. In simpler terms, this is really just saying that if you want to describe a process where something has happened, you need to describe what happened to the “stuff” in the system and what happened to the energy in the system to make the process happen.

We can't possibly cover all examples of matter and energy transfer in BIS2A. But, we will explore these issues often and practice describing transformations that happen in Nature with a structured and explicit attention to what is happening to the matter and energy in a system as it changes. We will do this exercise across different structural levels in biology, from the molecular level (like a single chemical reaction) to more large-scale and abstracted models like nutrient cycling in the environment. We will practice this skill by using a pedagogical tool we call “The Energy Story”. Be prepared to participate!