Instruments Used in Biology

By Susan Sedgwick; Updated April 25, 2017
Skeletal models are commonly found in biology labs.

Biology labs contain instruments and tools to help scientists study living creatures—from single-celled amoebas to massive plants and mammals. Specialized scientific equipment enables biologists to study cellular processes, genetics, bacteria and other life forms that are invisible to the naked eye. Scientists need sophisticated instruments to investigate how living organisms function, breathe, eat, reproduce and evolve. Typically, students are first introduced to essential instruments in high school or college biology labs.


A microscope is an essential instrument for biologists because it allows scientists to see things that are invisible to the naked eye. Several fields within biology are based on microscopes, including cellular and molecular biology, microbiology, bacteriology and many others. Microscopes come in a variety of styles and are designed for use in different situations. In school biology labs, the most common type is a single-lens, optical microscope, which uses light to magnify biological or cellular material that is stained or prepared on a slide. Compound microscopes use multiple lenses that offer improved magnification and contrast to better study cells, tissues or other materials. Other types of microscopes used in biological studies include powerful electron transmission scopes, phase contrast scopes and florescence scopes.

Anatomical, Plant and Cell Models

Three-dimensional models are useful tools to help visualize and understand human bodies, animals, plants and other living organisms. Generally made of plastic or synthetic materials, an anatomical model helps provide an understanding of biological structures. For example, a human skeletons teaches students how the leg bone connects to the shin bone. Using models, students can visualize the skeletal structure of various mammals, amphibians and insects. Accurate in scale and color, models can depict the shape and function of internal organs or have movable parts to illustrate physiological functions, such as digestion, photosynthesis or the Kreb's cycle. Biological models for isolated body parts—such as the eye, ear, brain or heart—allow students to comprehend how they function. A large, 3-D model of a single cell lets students visualize complex internal structures, such as the nucleus and cell membrane.

Petri Dishes, Agar and Stereoscopes

Another laboratory staple is the Petri dish, which is used to culture bacteria, germinate seeds and more. A Petri dish is a flat, lidded dish made from glass or plastic that's roughly the size of a saucer. Biologists will introduce a specific type of bacteria or organism to a Petri dish filled with nutrient agar, a blend of seaweed and proteins that feeds bacterial colonies or other organisms. To study the bacteria, biologists often use a stereoscope. Also called a dissecting microscope, a stereoscope magnifies objects in 3-D, so a scientist can see the entire Petri dish and its contents. A standard microscope only offers 2-D views of prepared slides. Although stereoscopes aren't as powerful as microscopes, they have a large stage to view specimens and are useful to magnify larger matter that is visible without a microscope.

About the Author

Susan Sedgwick has been a writer for more than 10 years, and her work has appeared in major newspapers, magazines and websites. Her favorite topics include interior design, travel, food, wine, entertainment, health and medicine. She has been featured in "Time Magazine," "New York Daily News" and "Detour." She earned her Masters of Arts in English/fiction writing from New York University.