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Scientific Words and Biology Terms for Health Literacy

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Scientific words pertaining to biology are in common use in print and conversation about health care issues. Knowledge of some of the more common ones is a springboard for increasing health literacy.

What is biology and why is it important?  

scientific wordsBiology is the science of living organisms. Science is the organized body of knowledge about a given topic or phenomena and the system for acquiring it. The science of biology is important in the healthcare field for a number of reasons. In summary, it is the foundation of the evaluation and treatment of patients. Some of the more important scientific words and biology terms for patients to understand are those below.

Key Scientific Words and Biology Terms


Acid – Is a chemical compound that can donate a proton or hydrogen ion, or accept a pair of electrons to form a covalent bond in a water solution. A strong acid is one that completely dissociates into its hydrogen ion half and the resultant base half when dissolved in water. Therefore, the arrow of a chemical equation which depicts the reaction involving a mixture of a strong acid with water points only to the right. A weak acid is one that only partially breaks up into a hydrogen ion part and a resultant base part when dissolved in water. In the case of a weak acid the arrow points in both directions, showing it is a reversible reaction.   

Albumin – Is a protein produced by the liver that circulates in the blood and which is the main cause of oncotic pressure. It is the most abundant serum protein.

Amino acid – Is one of the many protein building blocks. An essential amino acid is one that requires ingestion from the diet because the body cannot make it.

Apoptosis – It is programmed cell death believed to be genetically determined. At times it is beneficial in maintaining health. Examples are the death of red blood cells that have reached the end of their lifespan and the death of aging skin cells prior to the formation of new ones. At other times it is harmful. When harmful a stimulus usually initiates it, causing cells to participate in their own destruction.  It differs from necrosis in this respect, and in the fact that inflammation is not a part of the destructive process. A more advanced example of it is the death of immune system cells as a part of the development of immunological tolerance.

Atom – Is the structure that defines an element. It is unbreakable by chemical means. It consists of a nucleus, neutrons, atomic structureprotons and electrons. The nucleus is the core of an atom.  It is comprised of neutrons and protons. A neutron is an uncharged particle in the nucleus of an atom. A proton is a positively charged particle in the nucleus of an atom. An electron is a negatively charged component which orbits the nucleus of an atom.

Atomic mass (Atomic weight) – Is the average weight of an atom of an element.  It is usually expressed relative to the mass of the carbon-12 atom.

Atomic number – Is the number of protons in the atom of an element. For example, the atomic number of hydrogen is 1. For carbon it is 6.     

Atrophy – The wasting or decrease in the size of a cell, tissue, organ or other body part, usually due to injury or disease.  

Base – Is a chemical compound that can donate a pair of electrons or a hydroxide ion (OH-), or receive a proton (H+) to form a covalent bond when dissolved in water. More simply put, it is a chemical element with a negative charge due to an extra electron that can unite with a hydrogen ion from an acid to form a salt.   

Biochemistry – Is the science of the chemical structure and function of components in cells, as well as the transformations they undergo during life processes. Those components include things like proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and nucleic acids.   
Biochemical – adj.  

Biological (Biologic) – Pertaining to biology or to life and living things.

Biomarker – Is a bodily indicator of the presence of a disease, the status of a disease, or prior exposure to a disease causing agent. It is usually measurable by the testing of blood or other body fluids in a laboratory. A common example is the rise in cardiac enzymes due to a heart attack. Another one is the hemoglobin A-1 C level which correlates with blood glucose control. There are many others.  

Biosynthesis – Is the production of a complex chemical compound by a living organism.
Biosynthetic – adj.     

Carbon – Is an abundant natural element that is present in some inorganic and all organic compounds.  C is its chemical symbol.  – n. & adj.   

Catalysis – Is an increase in the rate of a chemical reaction. A catalyst is the substance which increases the rate. Enzymes are catalysts in living organisms. – Catalyze – v.

Chemical equation – Is a written representation of what occurs during a chemical reaction. It consists of an arrow with symbols to the left and right of it. Symbols to the left of the arrow are reactants. Symbols to the right of the arrow represent the product. Typically an arrow points from the left to the right. But in the case of a reaction in chemical equilibrium it points in both directions.  

Chemical Equilibrium – Is a state in which the forward and backward rates of a reversible chemical reaction are equal. In such a setting reactants are combining to form products. But at the same time the products are breaking back apart into the reactants. When the rate of product formation equals its rate of breakdown the concentrations of the reactants and products don’t change over time.  When a reaction reaches this point in time, it is in equilibrium.   

Chemical reaction – Is a process involving the making or breaking of bonds between atoms so as to change one or more substances into others. The term for the starting substances of a chemical reaction is reactants. The substance produced from the reaction is the product.  

Cell – Is the simplest unit of living matter.  In life forms composed of more than one cell, aggregates of cells form tissues.  – Cellular – adj.

Cell nucleus – Is the part of a cell, usually in the central part of the cytoplasm that contains its genetic code.  In addition to containing information about heredity it controls the growth and reproduction of the cell. – Nuclear – adj.

Chemical compound – A substance formed from the bonding together of two or more chemical elements.

Chromosome – Is a long stringy structure comprised of a group of genes.

Concentration – Is the amount of a substance in a given amount of another one, such as in a solution or a mixture. Examples are the concentration of oxygen in air, sugar in a cup of coffee, and potassium in blood.          

Covalent bond – Is a chemical link between two atoms as a result of sharing of electrons between them.  

Cytoplasm – The enclosed contents of a cell except for its nucleus. – Cytoplasmic – adj.

Density – Is the mass of an object or substance per unit volume. It is a measure of how tightly matter is compacted together.

Diffusion – Is the movement of molecules or particles from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration.

Dissociation – Is the breaking up of a substance into simpler and smaller parts.  A molecule for example might dissociate into atoms or ions.

Dissolve – To pass into solution or to cause to go into solution.

DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) – Is the actual molecule containing the genetic code of cells. It is composed of nucleic acids twisted in the shape of a double helix.

DNA transcription – Is the first step in gene expression. It consists of the decoding of DNA and the copying of a segment of DNA into RNA. An enzyme is involved in the process.

Element – Is a chemical substance consisting of atoms which all have the same number of protons. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, copper, gold, etc. are some examples.

Fluid – Is any substance that flows and has no fixed shape. Most fluids are liquids or gases. Water, oil and air are examples.

Genes – Are segments of DNA which are located on chromosomes.  

Gradient – It is a sloped increase or decrease in the quantity of an entity relative to a variable. The entity that changes might be the density of a solute in a solution; pressure; temperature; electrical voltage; blood pressure; etc. The variable that reveals the change might be distance, depth, time, age, etc. 

Inert – Inactive; said of a chemical compound.  

Inorganic – It is a descriptor denoting that the origin of a compound or substance is not a plant or animal.  In terms of chemistry, it is a compound not comprised of only carbon and hydrogen atoms. 

Ion – Is an atom or molecule with a net electric charge which is the result of the gain or loss of one or more orbiting electrons.

Ischemia – Is insufficiency of blood flow to tissue(s) or an organ(s). It is usually due to constriction of arteries or obstruction of blood flow through them. When severe it can result in necrosis. The term most commonly refers to the heart muscle but can apply to many other types of tissues that depend on adequate blood flow. Some of the more common ones are the brain, intestine, bone, skin and kidneys. Ischemic – adj.

Isotopes – Atoms with the same number of protons in the nucleus but a different number of neutrons. They are different forms of the same element.

Macroscopic – Large enough to be seen with the naked eye; capable of undergoing examination with an unaided eye. 

Mass – Is a measure of the amount of matter in an object. Common terms to express it are grams and kilograms. In contrast to volume, it denotes density.

Mechanism – The means by which an effect occurs or is obtained.  From a medical and scientific point of view, it might be a sequence of biologic processes, chemical reactions, events, etc. The effect might be the development of a disease; the occurrence of a side-effect from medicine; response of a disease to treatment; death; etc. – Mechanistic – adj. – Mechanistically – adv. 

Membrane – Is a thin layer of tissue that covers a surface, divides a space or organ, or lines a cavity. Natural membranes are in living organisms. 

A basement membrane is the thin and delicate layer of connective tissue which underlies the epithelium of many organs.
A cell membrane is a semipermeable one that surrounds the cytoplasm of a cell. 
A mucous membrane is a membrane that has a thick, sticky, or slippery substance which it secretes on its surface. The main ones line the cavities of the respiratory tract, digestive tract and reproductive tract. 
A nuclear membrane surrounds the nucleus of a cell.     
A semipermeable membrane is one which allows the passage of certain molecules but not others. Molecules that can pass through it might be select solutes, water and select solutes, or just water, depending on the type of membrane. 

Metabolism –The processes and reactions in the body which do the following:

  • breakdown complex substances into simple ones for energy production and the generation of building blocks for other substances
  • build complex substances from simple ones for bodily 
  • convert drugs into active forms, inactive forms, or forms that can be eliminated from the body

The term refers to the individual processes or the sum total of them within an organism. – Metabolic – adj. 

Metabolite – An end product of metabolism; more simply put, a substance that results from the conversion of another one by the body due to either of three types of processes.  Those processes are the following:

  • the breakdown of a more complex into a simpler substance for energy production 
  • synthesis of more complex bodily substance from simpler ones
  • the conversion of a drug to make it active, inactive, or removable from the body   

Microscopic – Too small to be seen with the naked eye; requiring a microscope for inspection.

Millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg) – Is a pressure unit of measure, expressed in terms of how high the force of a pressure will cause a column of mercury to rise against gravity under normal atmospheric conditions.  A pressure of one mm/Hg for example, will cause a 1 mm rise in a column of mercury.  With regard to blood pressure, it denotes the height in millimeters that the pressure within arteries will cause a column of mercury to rise.   

Mitochondria – Structures in the cytoplasm of cells where energy production occurs.  
Mitochondrion – sing.
Mitochondrial – adj.  

Mole – Is an expression of the amount of a substance that has the same number of chemical units (atoms in the case of molecules) as 12 g of carbon 12. That amount is 6.022 x 1023. The scientific name for that amount or number is Avogadro’s number. 

Molecular weight (Molecular mass) – It is the weight of an individual molecule of a chemical or compound. Calculating it requires knowledge of the composition of the molecule and the atomic mass of its elements. The sum of the atomic weights is the molecular weight. Calculating the molecular weight of water, H2O, is a good example. The atomic weight of hydrogen is 1. Since there are 2 elements of hydrogens in a molecule of water, its contribution to the molecular weight is 2. The atomic mass of oxygen is 16. The sum of 2 + 16 is 18.  Therefore, the molecular weight of a molecule of water is 18.   

Molecule – It is a chemical structure resulting from the combining of two or more atoms. The atoms may be the same or different as in the case of oxygen (O2) and water (H2O) respectively. It is the smallest part of a chemical compound that possesses the compound’s properties. – Molecular – adj.

Monoclonal antibody – Is a specific type of antibody made from identical immune cells. The immune cells are clones of the same parent cell. Because the cells are clones, the antibodies they produce are homogeneous. Their production in large quantities takes place in laboratories. Their increased use in treating certain illnesses such as MS and other autoimmune diseases is a recent trend. The reason is they can specifically target certain parts of the immune system

Necrosis – Is the death of a cell or tissue caused by external factors such as trauma, ischemia, infection, toxin, etc. Thus, the death is usually the result of injury or disease. Inflammation is part of the death process. In contrast to apoptosis, it is never beneficial to health– Necroticadj. 

Nitrogen – Is a natural chemical element that comprises approximately 4/5 of the volume of the air we breathe. N is the symbol for it.  

Nitrogenous – Containing nitrogen.  – adj. 

Nucleic acid –Is a molecule composed of three different parts. Those parts are nitrogen, a carbon sugar and a phosphate group. DNA and RNA are the two main types.  

Oncotic pressure – Is a form of osmotic pressure which results from proteins in blood pulling water into the blood vessels. It serves as an anchor to help hold the water in. Another name for it is colloid oncotic pressure.

Organic It is a descriptor denoting that the origin of a compound or substance is a plant or animal.  In a chemical sense, it is a compound comprised of only carbon and hydrogen atoms and the chemical bonds they form.

osmosisOsmosis – Is the passage of the liquid portion of a solution through a semipermeable membrane from a region of greater concentration to one of lesser concentration. The process continues until the concentration of dissolved particles in both areas is the same. 

Osmotic pressure – Is the pressure exerted by the flow of water through a semi-permeable membrane during osmosis. 

Partial pressure – Is the force per unit area that an individual gas of a gas mixture would exert if it were alone. It depends on the concentration of that gas in the mixture. Therefore, it is a percentage of the total pressure that the gas exerts.

Peptide – Is a compound composed of two or more amino acids joined by chemical bonding.  

Permeable – Is a reference to the property of a substance with respect to the ability of another substance(s) to pass through it. It commonly refers to a membrane. 

Protein – Is any of the group of complex substances composed of several amino acids joined by peptide bonds. They contain a number of elements. The main ones are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. They are fundamental parts and substances of many living organisms such as tissues, hormones, enzymes and antibodies.

Reversible chemical reaction – Is a chemical reaction in which the reactants form products that in turn react with each other to give back the reactants. The chemical equation for such a reaction has a double arrow pointing in both directions. This double arrow is in contrast to the single arrow pointing from left to right indicative of a chemical reaction which is not reversible.

RNA (ribonucleic acid) – Is a set of single-stranded molecules which serves as a template for protein synthesis. It is the RNA translationproduct of DNA transcription.

Semipermeable – Allowing the selective passage or penetration of some molecules but not others. It is most commonly a descriptor for a membrane.

Soluble – Capable of dissolving in a solvent.

Solute – Is the substance of a solution dissolved in the solvent.

Solution – Is an evenly distributed mixture of two or more substances.

Solvent – Is the liquid part of a solution.   

Synthesis – Is the creation or formation of a whole structure or compound by the combining or union of simpler parts or elements. In contrast to biosynthesis, this building up or putting together process need not occur naturally. 
Synthetic – adj.

Translation – Is the synthesis of protein from an RNA template.

Volume – Is the quantity of a liquid, solid, or gas in three-dimensional space. Some of the common units that express it are gallons, ounces, liters, cubic meters, and teaspoons. In contrast to mass, it denotes how much space a substance occupies.

























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