1-1-3. Themes and Concepts of Biology
Biology is the science that studies life, but what exactly is life? This may sound like a silly question with an obvious response, but it is not always easy to define life. For example, a branch of biology called virology studies viruses, which exhibit some of the characteristics of living entities but lack others. It turns out that although viruses can attack living organisms, cause diseases, and even reproduce, they do not meet the criteria that biologists use to define life. Consequently, virologists are not biologists, strictly speaking. Similarly, some biologists study the early molecular evolution that gave rise to life; since the events that preceded life are not biological events, these scientists are also excluded from biology in the strict sense of the term.
From its earliest beginnings, biology has wrestled with three questions: What are the shared properties that make something “alive”? And once we know something is alive, how do we find meaningful levels of organization in its structure? And, finally, when faced with the remarkable diversity of life, how do we organize the different kinds of organisms so that we can better understand them? As new organisms are discovered every day, biologists continue to seek answers to these and other questions.
Properties of Life
All living organisms share several key characteristics or functions: order, sensitivity or response to the environment, reproduction, adaptation, growth and development, regulation, homeostasis, and energy processing. When viewed together, these eight characteristics serve to define life.
Organisms are highly organized, coordinated structures that consist of one or more cells. Even very simple, single-celled organisms are remarkably complex: inside each cell, atoms make up molecules; these in turn make up cell organelles and other cellular inclusions. In multicellular organisms (Figure 1), similar cells form tissues. Tissues, in turn, collaborate to create organs (body structures with a distinct function). Organs work together to form organ systems.
Sensitivity or Response to Stimuli
Organisms respond to diverse stimuli. For example, plants can bend toward a source of light, climb on fences and walls, or respond to touch (Figure 2). Even tiny bacteria can move toward or away from chemicals (a process called chemotaxis) or light (phototaxis). Movement toward a stimulus is considered a positive response, while movement away from a stimulus is considered a negative response.
Link to Learning
Watch this video to see how plants respond to a stimulus—from opening to light, to wrapping a tendril around a branch, to capturing prey.
Single-celled organisms reproduce by first duplicating their DNA, and then dividing it equally as the cell prepares to divide to form two new cells. Multicellular organisms often produce specialized reproductive germline cells that will form new individuals. When reproduction occurs, genes containing DNA are passed along to an organism’s offspring. These genes ensure that the offspring will belong to the same species and will have similar characteristics, such as size and shape.
Growth and Development
Organisms grow and develop following specific instructions coded for by their genes. These genes provide instructions that will direct cellular growth and development, ensuring that a species’ young (Figure 3) will grow up to exhibit many of the same characteristics as its parents.
Even the smallest organisms are complex and require multiple regulatory mechanisms to coordinate internal functions, respond to stimuli, and cope with environmental stresses. Two examples of internal functions regulated in an organism are nutrient transport and blood flow. Organs (groups of tissues working together) perform specific functions, such as carrying oxygen throughout the body, removing wastes, delivering nutrients to every cell, and cooling the body.
In order to function properly, cells need to have appropriate conditions such as proper temperature, pH, and appropriate concentration of diverse chemicals. These conditions may, however, change from one moment to the next. Organisms are able to maintain internal conditions within a narrow range almost constantly, despite environmental changes, through
All organisms use a source of energy for their metabolic activities. Some organisms capture energy from the sun and convert it into chemical energy in food; others use chemical energy in molecules they take in as food (Figure 5).
Levels of Organization of Living Things
Living things are highly organized and structured, following a hierarchy that can be examined on a scale from small to large. The
Link to Learning
Watch this video that animates the three-dimensional structure of the DNA molecule shown in Figure 6.
Some cells contain aggregates of macromolecules surrounded by membranes; these are called
In larger organisms, cells combine to make
All the individuals of a species living within a specific area are collectively called a
Which of the following statements is false?
The Diversity of Life
The fact that biology, as a science, has such a broad scope has to do with the tremendous diversity of life on earth. The source of this diversity is
The evolution of various life forms on Earth can be summarized in a phylogenetic tree (Figure 8). A
Carl Woese and the Phylogenetic Tree
In the past, biologists grouped living organisms into five kingdoms: animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. The organizational scheme was based mainly on physical features, as opposed to physiology, biochemistry, or molecular biology, all of which are used by modern systematics. The pioneering work of American microbiologist Carl Woese in the early 1970s has shown, however, that life on Earth has evolved along three lineages, now called domains—Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. The first two are prokaryotic cells with microbes that lack membrane-enclosed nuclei and organelles. The third domain contains the eukaryotes and includes unicellular microorganisms together with the four original kingdoms (excluding bacteria). Woese defined Archaea as a new domain, and this resulted in a new taxonomic tree (Figure 8). Many organisms belonging to the Archaea domain live under extreme conditions and are called extremophiles. To construct his tree, Woese used genetic relationships rather than similarities based on morphology (shape).
Woese’s tree was constructed from comparative sequencing of the genes that are universally distributed, present in every organism, and conserved (meaning that these genes have remained essentially unchanged throughout evolution). Woese’s approach was revolutionary because comparisons of physical features are insufficient to differentiate between the prokaryotes that appear fairly similar in spite of their tremendous biochemical diversity and genetic variability (Figure 9). The comparison of homologous DNA and RNA sequences provided Woese with a sensitive device that revealed the extensive variability of prokaryotes, and which justified the separation of the prokaryotes into two domains: bacteria and archaea.
Branches of Biological Study
The scope of biology is broad and therefore contains many branches and subdisciplines. Biologists may pursue one of those subdisciplines and work in a more focused field. For instance,
Forensic science is the application of science to answer questions related to the law. Biologists as well as chemists and biochemists can be forensic scientists. Forensic scientists provide scientific evidence for use in courts, and their job involves examining trace materials associated with crimes. Interest in forensic science has increased in the last few years, possibly because of popular television shows that feature forensic scientists on the job. Also, the development of molecular techniques and the establishment of DNA databases have expanded the types of work that forensic scientists can do. Their job activities are primarily related to crimes against people such as murder, rape, and assault. Their work involves analyzing samples such as hair, blood, and other body fluids and also processing DNA (Figure 10) found in many different environments and materials. Forensic scientists also analyze other biological evidence left at crime scenes, such as insect larvae or pollen grains. Students who want to pursue careers in forensic science will most likely be required to take chemistry and biology courses as well as some intensive math courses.
Another field of biological study,
Biology is the culmination of the achievements of the natural sciences from their inception to today. Excitingly, it is the cradle of emerging sciences, such as the biology of brain activity, genetic engineering of custom organisms, and the biology of evolution that uses the laboratory tools of molecular biology to retrace the earliest stages of life on earth. A scan of news headlines—whether reporting on immunizations, a newly discovered species, sports doping, or a genetically-modified food—demonstrates the way biology is active in and important to our everyday world.
Biology is the science of life. All living organisms share several key properties such as order, sensitivity or response to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, regulation, homeostasis, and energy processing. Living things are highly organized parts of a hierarchy that includes atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems. Organisms, in turn, are grouped as populations, communities, ecosystems, and the biosphere. The great diversity of life today evolved from less-diverse ancestral organisms over billions of years. A diagram called a phylogenetic tree can be used to show evolutionary relationships among organisms.
Biology is very broad and includes many branches and subdisciplines. Examples include molecular biology, microbiology, neurobiology, zoology, and botany, among others.
Figure 7. Which of the following statements is false?
Figure 7. Communities exist within populations which exist within ecosystems.
The smallest unit of biological structure that meets the functional requirements of “living” is the ________.
Viruses are not considered living because they ________.
The presence of a membrane-enclosed nucleus is a characteristic of ________.
A group of individuals of the same species living in the same area is called a(n) ________.
Which of the following sequences represents the hierarchy of biological organization from the most inclusive to the least complex level?
Where in a phylogenetic tree would you expect to find the organism that had evolved most recently?
Select two items that biologists agree are necessary in order to consider an organism “alive.” For each, give an example of a non-living object that otherwise fits the definition of “alive,”
Answers will vary. Layers of sedimentary rock have order but are not alive. Technology is capable of regulation but is not, of itself, alive.
Consider the levels of organization of the biological world, and place each of these items in order from smallest level of organization to most encompassing: skin cell, elephant, water molecule, planet Earth, tropical rainforest, hydrogen atom, wolf pack, liver.
Smallest level of organization to largest: hydrogen atom, water molecule, skin cell, liver, elephant, wolf pack, tropical rainforest, planet Earth
You go for a long walk on a hot day. Give an example of a way in which homeostasis keeps your body healthy.
During your walk, you may begin to perspire, which cools your body and helps your body to maintain a constant internal temperature. You might also become thirsty and pause long enough for a cool drink, which will help to restore the water lost during perspiration.
Using examples, explain how biology can be studied from a microscopic approach to a global approach.
Researchers can approach biology from the smallest to the largest, and everything in between. For instance, an ecologist may study a population of individuals, the population’s community, the community’s ecosystem, and the ecosystem’s part in the biosphere. When studying an individual organism, a biologist could examine the cell and its organelles, the tissues that the cells make up, the organs and their respective organ systems, and the sum total—the organism itself.