Molecular Biologist

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Molecular Biologist


Molecular biology is the scientific discipline that seeks to fully understand the molecular basis of heredity, genetic variation, and the expression patterns of individual units of heredity called genes. Molecular biologists study how biological characteristics are passed on from one generation to the next and investigate how bacteria or viruses function at the molecular level.

Molecular biologists identify living things called micro-organisms that are too small to be seen without a microscope to better understand their relation to human, plant, and animal health. They look at these organisms in relation to genetics in order to understand the inheritance and molecular basis of genetic disease. They also investigate how these micro-organisms function in the production of vitamins, antibiotics, amino acids, alcohols, and sugars. The results of their research has produced breakthroughs in medical, agricultural, industrial, and other scientific fields.

Many molecular biologists believe that a chain of molecules connects each of us with the first living organisms that arose on the Earth billions of years ago. Therefore, people are all connected biologically in some form or another. Yet interestingly, all humans have individual characteristics that distinguish them from one another. Molecular biologists conduct research into the biochemical and physiological aspects of heredity, particularly the role of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and carry out molecular tests to aid in diagnosing disease.

Molecular biologists help scientists and physicians in the understanding, diagnosis, prevention and treatment of infections in animals and humans by investigating how organisms cause disease and their role in disease processes. Work in molecular biology is often interdisciplinary, so they may work closely with chemists, biochemists, geneticists, genetic engineers, pathologists and other physicians, environmentalists, civil engineers, veterinarians and geologists.

Molecular biologists use a variety of specialized sophisticated equipment such as gas chromatographs and high pressure liquid chromatographs, electrophoresis units, thermocyclers, fluorescence activated cell sorters and phosphoimagers. They may also use computers in conducting experiments. It is common to find a molecular biologist peering through the lens of a microscope or performing other related experiments in a laboratory. However, the nature of the work may vary considerably with each assignment.
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  Interests and Skills  
Molecular biologists must have true interest in natural phenomena and scientific research, and an inquiring mind. They should have good manual dexterity for transferring micro-organisms from one culture medium to another without contaminating samples, and the ability to pay close attention to details.

Most have a strong aptitude and background in chemistry, biochemistry and genetics. Molecular biologists are usually well organized, enjoy working in the laboratory with equipment and performing tasks which require precision.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Conduct research into the structure, function, biotechnology and genetics of micro-organisms, including bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and algae
  • Conduct experiments to isolate and make cultures of specific micro-organisms under controlled conditions
  • Analyze nucleic acids, proteins and other substances produced by micro-organisms
  • Perform tests on water, food and the environment to detect harmful micro-organisms and control sources of pollution and contamination
  • Conduct molecular or biochemical studies and experiments into genetic expression, gene manipulation and recombinant DNA technology
  • Observe, identify and classify micro-organisms
  • Isolate micro-organisms involved in breaking down pollutants
  • Develop modified microbes for use in the production of speciality biologicals or for gene transfer
  • Find ways for microorganisms to help humans
  • May supervise biological technologists and technicians and other scientists
  • Molecular biologists, particularly those working in environmental, agricultural and veterinary fields, work outdoors some of the time. However, the majority of the work is performed indoors in laboratories and on computers. The pressure of having to meet project deadlines can be stressful and will often result in long hours. Generally, molecular biologists put in long workweeks. For those working with toxic or harmful chemicals, following safety rules and wearing protective equipment will help avoid chemical injury or exposure to infection. Preventive inoculations will also help to protect medical molecular biologists from the risk of disease.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Molecular biologists work for governments, hospitals, colleges and universities, industrial laboratories, companies in the agricultural industry, pharmaceutical companies, food and beverage companies, diagnostic laboratories, biotechnology firms, bioremediation companies, and companies in the oil industry. Contract work is becoming more common in this occupation, as of late.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Long-term advancement will certainly depend on the education level of the molecular biologist. Those with master's degrees may work as professionals in laboratory settings, performing experiments. Molecular biologists with PhDs may conduct and lead individual and group research projects and teach in universities, manage hospital (clinical) diagnostic microbiology laboratories or advance to senior scientific appointments in government or industry.

Advancement opportunities for molecular biologists depend on the size and nature of the employing organization and the qualifications of the employee. Molecular biologists can move into related biology fields such as biochemistry, genetics, ecology, virology or biochemical engineering. They can also become clinical technicians in health care facilities, quality control officers in the food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, or bioremediation specialists.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum education requirement is a four-year Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in molecular biology, microbiology or biochemistry with some background in genetics. Those who have a bachelor's degree are qualified to work as laboratory assistants or technicians. A graduate degree (master's or PhD) is usually required for senior research positions. Those who have PhDs may continue their training as post-doctoral fellows.

Medical microbiologists preparing to work in hospitals usually take a medical degree (MD), then specialize in molecular biology. Those planning to work in medical research laboratories or medical diagnostic laboratories may take a BS in Medical Laboratory Science, or a BS degree plus a related two-year diploma.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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