Physiology (; from Ancient Greek φύσις (physis), meaning 'nature, origin', and -λογία (-logia), meaning 'study of') is the scientific study of functions and mechanisms in a living system. As a sub-discipline of biology, physiology focuses on how organisms, organ systems, individual organs, cells, and biomolecules carry out the chemical and physical functions in a living system. According to the classes of organisms, the field can be divided into medical physiology, animal physiology, plant physiology, cell physiology, and comparative physiology.
Central to physiological functioning are biophysical and biochemical processes, homeostatic control mechanisms, and communication between cells. Physiological state is the condition of normal function, while pathological state refers to abnormal conditions, including human diseases.
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences for exceptional scientific achievements in physiology related to the field of medicine.
Foundations of physiology
Human physiology seeks to understand the mechanisms that work to keep the human body alive and functioning,
through scientific enquiry into the nature of mechanical, physical, and
biochemical functions of humans, their organs, and the cells of which
they are composed. The principal level of focus of physiology is at the
level of organs and systems within systems. The endocrine and nervous
systems play major roles in the reception and transmission of signals
that integrate function in animals. Homeostasis is a major aspect with
regard to such interactions within plants as well as animals. The
biological basis of the study of physiology, integration refers to the
overlap of many functions of the systems of the human body, as well as
its accompanied form. It is achieved through communication that occurs
in a variety of ways, both electrical and chemical.
Changes in physiology can impact the mental functions of
individuals. Examples of this would be the effects of certain
medications or toxic levels of substances. Change in behavior as a result of these substances is often used to assess the health of individuals.
Much of the foundation of knowledge in human physiology was
provided by animal experimentation. Due to the frequent connection
between form and function, physiology and anatomy are intrinsically linked and are studied in tandem as part of a medical curriculum.
Plant physiology is a subdiscipline of botany concerned with the functioning of plants. Closely related fields include plant morphology, plant ecology, phytochemistry, cell biology, genetics, biophysics, and molecular biology. Fundamental processes of plant physiology include photosynthesis, respiration, plant nutrition, tropisms, nastic movements, photoperiodism, photomorphogenesis, circadian rhythms, seed germination, dormancy, and stomata
function and transpiration. Absorption of water by roots, production of
food in the leaves, and growth of shoots towards light are examples of
there are differences between animal, plant, and microbial cells, the
basic physiological functions of cells can be divided into the processes
of cell division, cell signaling, cell growth, and cell metabolism.
Involving evolutionary physiology and environmental physiology, comparative physiology considers the diversity of functional characteristics across organisms.
The classical era
The study of human physiology as a medical field originates in classical Greece, at the time of Hippocrates (late 5th century BC).
Outside of Western tradition, early forms of physiology or anatomy can
be reconstructed as having been present at around the same time in
Hippocrates incorporated his belief system called the theory of humours,
which consisted of four basic substance: earth, water, air and fire.
Each substance is known for having a corresponding humour: black bile,
phlegm, blood and yellow bile, respectively. Hippocrates also noted some
emotional connections to the four humours, which Claudius Galenus would
later expand on. The critical thinking of Aristotle and his emphasis on the relationship between structure and function marked the beginning of physiology in Ancient Greece.
Like Hippocrates, Aristotle took to the humoral theory of disease,
which also consisted of four primary qualities in life: hot, cold, wet
and dry. Claudius Galenus (c. 130–200 AD), known as Galen
of Pergamum, was the first to use experiments to probe the functions of
the body. Unlike Hippocrates, Galen argued that humoral imbalances can
be located in specific organs, including the entire body.
His modification of this theory better equipped doctors to make more
precise diagnoses. Galen also played off of Hippocrates idea that
emotions were also tied to the humours, and added the notion of
temperaments: sanguine corresponds with blood; phlegmatic is tied to
phlegm; yellow bile is connected to choleric; and black bile corresponds
with melancholy. Galen also saw the human body consisting of three
connected systems: the brain and nerves, which are responsible for
thoughts and sensations; the heart and arteries, which give life; and
the liver and veins, which can be attributed to nutrition and growth. Galen was also the founder of experimental physiology. And for the next 1,400 years, Galenic physiology was a powerful and influential tool in medicine.
Early modern period
Jean Fernel (1497–1558), a French physician, introduced the term "physiology". Galen, Ibn al-Nafis, Michael Servetus, Realdo Colombo, Amato Lusitano and William Harvey, are credited as making important discoveries in the circulation of the blood. Santorio Santorio in 1610s was the first to use a device to measure the pulse rate (the pulsilogium), and a thermoscope to measure temperature.
In 1791 Luigi Galvani described the role of electricity in nerves of dissected frogs. In 1811, César Julien Jean Legallois studied respiration in animal dissection and lesions and found the center of respiration in the medulla oblongata. In the same year, Charles Bell finished work on what would later become known as the Bell-Magendie law, which compared functional differences between dorsal and ventral roots of the spinal cord. In 1824, François Magendie described the sensory roots and produced the first evidence of the cerebellum's role in equilibration to complete the Bell-Magendie law.
In the 1820s, the French physiologist Henri Milne-Edwards
introduced the notion of physiological division of labor, which allowed
to "compare and study living things as if they were machines created by
the industry of man." Inspired in the work of Adam Smith,
Milne-Edwards wrote that the "body of all living beings, whether animal
or plant, resembles a factory ... where the organs, comparable to
workers, work incessantly to produce the phenomena that constitute the
life of the individual." In more differentiated organisms, the
functional labor could be apportioned between different instruments or systems (called by him as appareils).
In 1858, Joseph Lister
studied the cause of blood coagulation and inflammation that resulted
after previous injuries and surgical wounds. He later discovered and
implemented antiseptics in the operating room, and as a result, decreased death rate from surgery by a substantial amount.
The Physiological Society was founded in London in 1876 as a dining club. The American Physiological Society
(APS) is a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1887. The
Society is, "devoted to fostering education, scientific research, and
dissemination of information in the physiological sciences."
In 1891, Ivan Pavlov performed research on "conditional responses" that involved dogs' saliva production in response to a bell and visual stimuli.
In the 19th century, physiological knowledge began to accumulate at a rapid rate, in particular with the 1838 appearance of the Cell theory of Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann. It radically stated that organisms are made up of units called cells. Claude Bernard's (1813–1878) further discoveries ultimately led to his concept of milieu interieur (internal environment), which would later be taken up and championed as "homeostasis" by American physiologist Walter B. Cannon
in 1929. By homeostasis, Cannon meant "the maintenance of steady states
in the body and the physiological processes through which they are
In other words, the body's ability to regulate its internal
environment. William Beaumont was the first American to utilize the
practical application of physiology.
Nineteenth-century physiologists such as Michael Foster, Max Verworn, and Alfred Binet, based on Haeckel's ideas, elaborated what came to be called "general physiology", a unified science of life based on the cell actions, later renamed in the 20th century as cell biology.
Late modern period
the 20th century, biologists became interested in how organisms other
than human beings function, eventually spawning the fields of comparative physiology and ecophysiology. Major figures in these fields include Knut Schmidt-Nielsen and George Bartholomew. Most recently, evolutionary physiology has become a distinct subdiscipline.
In 1920, August Krogh won the Nobel Prize for discovering how, in capillaries, blood flow is regulated.
In 1954, Andrew Huxley and Hugh Huxley, alongside their research team, discovered the sliding filaments in skeletal muscle, known today as the sliding filament theory.
Recently, there have been intense debates about the vitality of physiology as a discipline (Is it dead or alive?). If physiology is perhaps less visible nowadays than during the golden age of the 19th century,
it is in large part because the field has given birth to some of the
most active domains of today's biological sciences, such as neuroscience, endocrinology, and immunology.
Furthermore, physiology is still often seen as an integrative
discipline, which can put together into a coherent framework data coming
from various different domains.
Women in physiology
Initially, women were largely excluded from official involvement in any physiological society. The American Physiological Society, for example, was founded in 1887 and included only men in its ranks. In 1902, the American Physiological Society elected Ida Hyde as the first female member of the society. Hyde, a representative of the American Association of University Women and a global advocate for gender equality in education, attempted to promote gender equality in every aspect of science and medicine.
Soon thereafter, in 1913, J.S. Haldane proposed that women be allowed to formally join The Physiological Society, which had been founded in 1876. On 3 July 1915, six women were officially admitted: Florence Buchanan, Winifred Cullis, Ruth C. Skelton, Sarah C. M. Sowton, Constance Leetham Terry, and Enid M. Tribe.
The centenary of the election of women was celebrated in 2015 with the
publication of the book "Women Physiologists: Centenary Celebrations
And Beyond For The Physiological Society." (ISBN 978-0-9933410-0-7)
Prominent women physiologists include:
- Gerty Cori, along with husband Carl Cori, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 for their discovery of the phosphate-containing form of glucose known as glycogen, as well as its function within eukaryotic metabolic mechanisms for energy production. Moreover, they discovered the Cori cycle, also known as the Lactic acid cycle, which describes how muscle tissue converts glycogen into lactic acid via lactic acid fermentation.
- Barbara McClintock was rewarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of genetic transposition. McClintock is the only female recipient who has won an unshared Nobel Prize.
- Gertrude Elion, along with George Hitchings and Sir James Black,
received the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1988 for their
development of drugs employed in the treatment of several major
diseases, such as leukemia, some autoimmune disorders, gout, malaria, and viral herpes.
- Linda B. Buck, along with Richard Axel, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2004 for their discovery of odorant receptors and the complex organization of the olfactory system.
- Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, along with Luc Montagnier, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2008 for their work on the identification of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the cause of Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
- Elizabeth Blackburn, along with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of the genetic composition and function of telomeres and the enzyme called telomerase.
There are many ways to categorize the subdisciplines of physiology:
- based on the taxa studied: human physiology, animal physiology, plant physiology, microbial physiology, viral physiology
- based on the level of organization: cell physiology, molecular physiology, systems physiology, organismal physiology, ecological physiology, integrative physiology
- based on the process that causes physiological variation: developmental physiology, environmental physiology, evolutionary physiology
- based on the ultimate goals of the research: applied physiology (e.g., medical physiology), non-applied (e.g., comparative physiology)
Transnational physiological societies include:
National physiological societies include:
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