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What the heck is ‘Bioengineering’?


Bio: referring to life; Engineering: the application of scientific and mathematical principles to practical ends such as the design, manufacture, and operation of efficient and economical structures, machines, processes, and systems…


Bioengineering: the application of the principles of engineering to the fields of biology and medicine. Bioengineering is really a broad term encompassing the application the principles of other engineering fields to the fields of biology of medicine. Unlike the other fields of engineering, one can find difficulty in pinpointing exactly what bioengineers do. Ask yourself! Civil engineers design buildings, bridges, freeways and other objects that civilians use in daily life. Mechanical engineers design machines and engines, objects meant to perform work. Electrical engineers design robotics, circuit boards, radios, televisions and anything else designed to turn electricity into something useful while computer scientists program our computers. Material scientists and engineers evaluate, test and design materials while trying to understand how the microscopic structures are related to macroscopic properties. Chemical engineers study, design and perform chemical reactions that are used to chemically manufacture useful products. Nuclear engineers use the principles of nuclear physics to design nuclear power reactors for powering homes and businesses or for powering space probes. Industrial engineers are involved in heavy manufacturing and industry. So what exactly do bioengineers do? The answer can be very simple: anything that is designed for use in biology or medicine is bioengineered!


The Department of Bioengineering at UC Berkeley is divided into several core areas:

•Biomechanics and Tissue Engineering

-Stem cell research, organ replacement, prosthetics, joint replacement, tissue replacement/repair, bone reconstruction

Applied fields: Mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, integrative biology, molecular and cell biology and material science and engineering.

Examples: Artificial heart, bone screws, skin grafting


•Bioinformatics and Genomics and •Computational Bioengineering

-Genetic engineering, genetic mapping, genetic analysis

Applied fields: Computer science, molecular and cell biology, math and statistics

Examples: Genetic testing, gene therapy, cloning, Human Genome Project, disease prediction


Micromachines and Robotics

-Implantable devices, sensory devices, limb replacement

Applied fields: Electrical engineering, integrative biology, molecular and cell biology and mechanical engineering

Examples: robotic replacement arms, insulin detection devices, monitoring devices, BioMEMS (biomedical microelectromechanical systems)


•Neural and Sensory Systems Bioengineering

-Repair/replace damaged/non-functioning nerves: spinal cord, blindness, deafness, Parkinson’s disease, andAlzheimer’s disease.

Applied fields: Electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, molecular and cell biology, and vision science

•Biomedical Imaging and Signal Processing

-Includes: imaging (Tomography (CT), X-Ray, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), Mammography, X-Ray)

Applied Fields: Electrical engineering and nuclear engineering


•Radiological Bioengineering

-Concerned with the design of radiation devices for use in diagnostics/ treatment. Radiation cancer therapy, radioactive pellets, protection from radiation

Applied Fields: Electrical engineering, nuclear engineering, molecular and cell biology


•Biomedical Systems Engineering

-Includes monitoring devices (all those beeping things in the hospital): ECG (EKG), blood pressure monitor, respirators, etc.

Applied Fields: Chemical engineering, electrical engineering, integrative biology, molecular and cell biology, and nuclear engineering



The Ethics of Bioengineering and Questions to consider

Genetics is only one portion of bioengineering; bioengineering is really a multidisciplinary approach to solving the problems in biology and medicine. However, while bioengineering shares many things in common with the other engineering fields, there is one thing that it does not. Whenever we deal with life, we must deal with ethics and morality. Because bioengineering deals with life, bioengineers, especially those involved with genetics, must face and deal with the same ethical or moral dilemmas that any person involved with biology and medicine must. Is it right to clone humans? Manipulate genes? Make bigger, badder, and longer-lasting food products? Can we or should we “toy” with nature? Screen out babies with bad genes? Use stem cells from fertilized eggs? Categorize humans based on genetic tendencies? Should we have a national genetic database? Are we on the road to becoming “half human, half machine?” What effects do imaging techniques have on cells? Is it acceptable to design technology whose use would be uncertain? Are we accelerating or upsetting some natural evolutionary process? Unfortunately, there are probably many more issues than these.


For more information regarding Bioengineering:

University of California, Berkeley Department of Bioengineering

Department of Bioengineering Research Areas