Mathematical modelling in biology


When students think about cutting-edge research in biology, it’s usually elements such as DNA or fieldwork in the Amazon rainforest that come to mind. Few students realise how important mathematical and computational skills are in today’s research labs.

Mathematical modelling is a fundamental skill in all science, and models range in complexity from simple population modelling to ‘whole earth systems’ models, which attempt to show the circulation of air and oceans across the entire planet. Model organisms such as Drosophila and Arabidopsis are well known as a way of investigating some of the fundamental problems of biology. In the future, computer modelling is set to become one of the main methods scientists use to explain their theories and make predictions; as a result, a working knowledge of modelling and its uses is essential for research scientists today.

As Professor Eliot Meyerowitz from the Sainsbury Lab, Cambridge, says, this research is not just intellectually fascinating: “The answers will not only enhance our fundamental understanding of life, they will also have important application to a critical problem that faces the world today – how to feed and fuel a growing population with limited resources of land, water and energy.”

This collection of resources introduces the importance of mathematical modelling for A-level biology students and their teachers, and allows students to get hands on with online tools used by international researchers.

These resources were developed by Freya Scoates, a plant sciences student on a summer internship with SAPS. They are currently in pilot phase, so please email us  at with any comments and suggestions for improvements.

The resource includes the following (download them from the links on the right).

An Introduction to Modelling in Biology. An article introducing the breadth of modelling in biology

ePlant and Biological Modelling – How and Why? An article introducing one specific online software tool used by biologists in their research, ePlant

Investigating Modelling with ePlant – Teaching Notes. A resource for teachers using ePlant with A-level students. The resource contains two activities: Activity One demonstrates the link between expression of different genes in a plant organ and its function, Activity Two shows how protein function is influenced by its structure.

See how researchers are using these tools in their work in this 5 minute video looking at how computer models can help us understand how living organisms grow into the correct shapes.

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