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Biological engineering, or bioengineering/bio-engineering, is the application of principles of biology and the tools of engineering to create usable, tangible, economically viable products. Biological engineering employs knowledge and expertise from a number of pure and applied sciences, such as mass and heat transfer, kinetics, biocatalysts, biomechanics, bioinformatics, separation and purification processes, bioreactor design, surface science, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, and polymer science. It is used in the design of medical devices, diagnostic equipment, biocompatible materials, renewable bioenergy, ecological engineering, agricultural engineering, and other areas that improve the living standards of societies. Examples of bioengineering research include bacteria engineered to produce chemicals, new medical imaging technology, portable and rapid disease diagnostic devices, prosthetics, biopharmaceuticals, and tissue-engineered organs. Bioengineering overlaps substantially with biotechnology and the biomedical sciences in a way analogous to how various other forms of engineering and technology relate to various other sciences (for example, aerospace engineering and other space technology to kinetics and astrophysics).
In general, biological engineers (or biomedical engineers) attempt to either mimic biological systems to create products or modify and control biological systems so that they can replace, augment, sustain, or predict chemical and mechanical processes. Bioengineers can apply their expertise to other applications of engineering and biotechnology, including genetic modification of plants and microorganisms, bioprocess engineering, and biocatalysis. Working with doctors, clinicians and researchers, bioengineers use traditional engineering principles and techniques and apply them to real-world biological and medical problems.
Biological engineering is a science-based discipline founded upon the biological sciences in the same way that chemical engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering can be based upon chemistry, electricity and magnetism, and classical mechanics, respectively. And it has the same fundamental attention to cost-effectiveness as all branches of engineering do.
Before WWII, biological engineering had just begun being recognized as a branch of engineering, and was a very new concept to people. Post-WWII, it started to grow more rapidly, partially due to the term "bioengineering" being coined by British scientist and broadcaster Heinz Wolff in 1954 at the National Institute for Medical Research. Wolff graduated that same year and became the director of the Division of Biological Engineering at the university. This was the first time Bioengineering was recognized as its own branch at a university. Electrical engineering is considered to pioneer this engineering sector due to its work with medical devices and machinery during this time. When engineers and life scientists started working together, they recognized the problem that the engineers didn't know enough about the actual biology behind their work. To resolve this problem, engineers who wanted to get into biological engineering devoted more of their time and studies to the details and processes that go into fields such as biology, psychology, and medicine. The term biological engineering may also be applied to environmental modifications such as surface soil protection, slope stabilization, watercourse and shoreline protection, windbreaks, vegetation barriers including noise barriers and visual screens, and the ecological enhancement of an area. Because other engineering disciplines also address living organisms, the term biological engineering can be applied more broadly to include agricultural engineering.
The first biological engineering program was created at University of California, San Diego in 1966, making it the first biological engineering curriculum in the United States. More recent programs have been launched at MIT and Utah State University. Many old agricultural engineering departments in universities over the world have re-branded themselves as agricultural and biological engineering or agricultural and biosystems engineering, due to biological engineering as a whole being a rapidly developing field with fluid categorization. According to Professor Doug Lauffenburger of MIT, biological engineering has a broad base which applies engineering principles to an enormous range of size and complexities of systems. These systems range from the molecular level (molecular biology, biochemistry, microbiology, pharmacology, protein chemistry, cytology, immunology, neurobiology and neuroscience) to cellular and tissue-based systems (including devices and sensors), to whole macroscopic organisms (plants, animals), and can even range up to entire ecosystems.
The average length of study is three to five years, and the completed degree is signified as a bachelor of engineering (B.S. in engineering). Fundamental courses include thermodynamics, bio-mechanics, biology, genetic engineering, fluid and mechanical dynamics, kinetics, electronics, and materials properties.
Depending on the institution and particular definitional boundaries employed, some major branches of bioengineering may be categorized as (note these may overlap):