There was a time when bio-science was the Cinderella science: meticulous, certainly, and worthwhile, but far from glamorous. All that changed in 2003, when the sequencing of the human genome was completed.
Now masses of data and the potential for radical technologies are attracting the best graduates in chemistry, physics, engineering and maths. And bio-science offers more than intellectual curiosity, explains Professor Sir David Read, Biological Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society. "It's the human factor," he says. "Cross-disciplinary approaches are addressing many of the major threats to humanity: disease prevalence, antibiotic-resistant micro-organisms, avian flu, the threats to the environment associated with climate change."
The biological sciences are as varied, and sometimes as confusing, as life itself, taking in such disparate disciplines as neuroscience and taxonomy, environmental science and microbiology, physiology and biochemistry. At Cambridge University alone, there are 21 life-science departments.
What is exciting many dons at the moment is omics, or systems biology, which is allowing study to shift from single genes or proteins to how they work together in biological systems.
"The omics system is producing massive amounts of data that we have trouble finding people to make sense of," says Dr David Sargan, director of graduate education in the life sciences at Cambridge.
Mathematicians, physicists, chemists and engineers are all being brought in. "Modern bio-science is incredibly interdisciplinary now," says Professor Paul Freemont, head of molecular bio-sciences at Imperial College London.
Systems biologists are building mathematical models that simulate the living cell, synthetic biologists are redesigning biological systems, chemical biologists are probing living systems at the chemical level, and physicists and engineers are bringing imaging wizardry to bear in biology, from the molecular to the cellular level.
"The biological sciences are going through a revolution," says Professor Freemont. "It's very exciting in the life sciences right now. Students from other disciplines find it fascinating: they see this wonderful opportunity to develop new strands of science."Interesting: Do you want to know more?