Doing Biology: Three Case Studies

Part of the Springer Texts in Education book series (SPTE)


This chapter is built around three case studies of biological investigations carried out not only in three very different areas of biology, but also in three different settings: the experimental laboratory, the field under natural conditions, and in historical time using paleontology and the fossil record to answer questions about the evolutionary development of life on earth. The first, laboratory-based case concerns the investigation into the mechanism by which nerve fibers growing out from the central nervous system “find” their way to very specific target sites (muscles, for example) in the peripheral areas of the animal body. This work led to the discovery of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) in the 1950s–1970s. The second, field-based case comes from a long-term investigation into the homing behavior in salmon: namely, an attempt to find out how adult salmon find their way from the ocean to the precise stream in which they hatched three or four years earlier. The third, historical case, involves the quest of evolutionary biologists to understand the causal factors in the extinction of the dinosaurs as part of a larger phenomenon known as “mass extinction”, during which numerous groups of organism all become extinct in a relatively short period of geological time.


Nerve Growth factorNerve Growth Factor Schwann Cell Mass Extinction Snake Venom Oort Cloud 
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Further Reading

On Neuronal Growth and Nerve Growth Factor (NGF)

  1. Allen, G. E. (2015). Viktor Hamburger, 1900–2001. Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences (National Academy of Science), 1–39. Available on-line at:
  2. Cowan, W. M. (1981). Studies in developmental neurobiology. Essays in honor of Viktor Hamburger. New York: Oxford University Press. (This volume contains some useful interpretive essays, including especially the one by the editor, Cowen, and one by Levi-Montalcini).Google Scholar
  3. Levi-Montalcini, R. (1997). The saga of the nerve growth factor. London: World Scientific. (This is a collection of previously-published papers by Levi-Montalcini and colleagues on nerve growth factor, from some of the earliest to the most recent).Google Scholar
  4. Oppenheimer, J. M. Ross Harrison’s contributions to experimental embryology. In J. M. Oppenheimer (Ed.), Essays in the history of embryology and biology (pp. 92–116). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Provides a good background for Harrisons’s early work on the self-directed outgrowth of the nerve fiber from the central nervous system).Google Scholar

On the Mass Extinction of Dinosaurs

  1. Hasler, A. D. (1966). Underwater guideposts (p. 42). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  2. Raup, D. (1986). The Nemesis affair. New York: W. W. Norton. (This subject has received an enormous amount of attention in recent years. One of the best sources in terms of clarity, brevity, and accuracy).Google Scholar
  3. Raup, D. (1991). Extinction: Bad genes or bad luck? New York: W. W. Norton. (This is a more general treatment of the issue of extinction in general. The Nemesis issue is the subject of only one chapter, but this provides an excellent summary).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyWashington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Wesleyan UniversityMiddletownUSA

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