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Structure and Function

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The concept of structure and function, also referred to as form and function, cuts across many scientific and engineering disciplines. Scientists may wish to understand how the structure of an organism or type of matter is related to how it behaves or what it does. Engineers need to keep in mind the intended function of a design when developing its structure. The way in which a structure functions, whether natural or designed by humans, depends on how key parts are shaped and the relationships between those parts. Conversely, form is also dependent on function. The importance of structure and function is reliant on scale. For example, understanding the intricacies of the structure of DNA is important when studying molecular biology, but is not as important when understanding the biomechanics of how an organism swims. To understand how an organism swims, the structure and function of the organism’s skeleton and muscles are of primary importance.


In marine and aquatic science, scientists study structure and function at a range of scales. For example, marine biologists interested in how fish are able to survive in subzero water temperatures without freezing may examine the structure and function of molecules like antifreeze proteins (Fig. 2.18). Marine chemists may seek to determine the structure of a molecule produced by algae, in order to determine how it could be used as a medicine to treat diseases. Ocean engineers must keep in mind the intended function of a design, in order to help determine design features. For example, a submarine that will be navigated by a person would be designed differently than a remotely operated vehicle.

Fig 2.18. (A) An ocean pout (Zoarces americanus) at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. Antifreeze proteins in this fish species’ blood allow it to survive in the near-freezing water of the Northwest Atlantic ocean basin.

Image courtesy of Steven G. Johnson from Wikipedia

Fig. 2.18. (B) Molecular structure of the ocean pout’s antifreeze protein.

Image courtesy of Protein Data Bank (PDB) and Sonnichsen, F.D., DeLuca, C.I., Davies, P.L., Sykes, B.D

The framework explains that structure and function can be explored starting in the early grades, using simple examples from the realms of biology or engineering. For example, students can examine why many chairs are designed with four legs for stability, or how tooth shape is related to the types of foods different animals eat. As students progress through the grades, they can understand systems that are more complex, with multiple parts, or that are not easily observed and are understood in terms of models. Students with a more developed sense of structure and function should be able to apply this concept to determine how unknown systems work or to design systems to meet engineering criteria. As with other crosscutting concepts, structure and function should be explicitly taught and referred to across disciplines.


Exploring Our Fluid Earth, a product of the Curriculum Research & Development Group (CRDG), College of Education. University of Hawaii, 2011. This document may be freely reproduced and distributed for non-profit educational purposes.