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By the end of this section, you will be able to:
  • Identify and describe the properties of life
  • Describe the levels of organization among living things
  • List examples of different sub disciplines in biology

Biology is the science that studies life. What exactly is life? This may sound like a silly question with an obvious answer, but it is not 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.

From its earliest beginnings, biology has wrestled with four questions: What are the shared properties that make something “alive”? How do those various living things function? When faced with the remarkable diversity of life, how do we organize the different kinds of organisms so that we can better understand them? And, finally—what biologists ultimately seek to understand—how did this diversity arise and how is it continuing? As new organisms are discovered every day, biologists continue to seek answers to these and other questions.

Properties of life

All groups of living organisms share several key characteristics or functions: order, sensitivity or response to stimuli, reproduction, adaptation, growth and development, regulation, homeostasis, and energy processing. When viewed together, these eight characteristics serve to define life.

Order

Organisms are highly organized 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 components or organelles. Multicellular organisms, which may consist of millions of individual cells, have an advantage over single-celled organisms in that their cells can be specialized to perform specific functions, and even sacrificed in certain situations for the good of the organism as a whole. How these specialized cells come together to form organs such as the heart, lung, or skin in organisms like the toad shown in [link] will be discussed later.

A photo shows a light-colored toad covered in bright green spots.
A toad represents a highly organized structure consisting of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems. (credit: "Ivengo(RUS)"/Wikimedia Commons)

Sensitivity or response to stimuli

Organisms respond to diverse stimuli. For example, plants can bend toward a source of light or respond to touch ( [link] ). 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.

A photograph of the Mimosa pudica shows a plant with many tiny leaves.
The leaves of this sensitive plant ( Mimosa pudica ) will instantly droop and fold when touched. After a few minutes, the plant returns to its normal state. (credit: Alex Lomas)

Concept in action

Watch this video to see how the sensitive plant responds to a touch stimulus.

Reproduction

Single-celled organisms reproduce by first duplicating their DNA, which is the genetic material, and then dividing it equally as the cell prepares to divide to form two new cells. Many multicellular organisms (those made up of more than one cell) produce specialized reproductive cells that will form new individuals. When reproduction occurs, DNA containing genes is passed along to an organism’s offspring. These genes are the reason that the offspring will belong to the same species and will have characteristics similar to the parent, such as fur color and blood type.

Questions & Answers

explain why a fresh water fish excrete ammonia
Leonard Reply
plz answer my question
Leonard
What are eukaryotic cells?
Nwosueke Reply
where does the cell get energy for active transport processes?
A'Kaysion Reply
what is synapsis
Adepoju Reply
how many turns are required to make a molecule of sucrose in Calvin cycle
Amina Reply
why Calvin cycle occurs in stroma
Amina
why do humans enhale oxygen and exhale carbondioxide?
Maryam Reply
why do humans enhale oxygen and exhale carbondioxide? For the purpose of breaking down the food
dil
what is allele
uzoka Reply
process of protein synthesis
SANTOSH Reply
what is cell
Zulf Reply
a cell is a smallest basic, structural and functional unit of life that is capable of self replication
Lucas
why does a fresh water fish excrete ammonia
Leonard
plz answer my question
Leonard
Ammonia is a toxic colorless gas and when its inside the fish biological system is converted to a less toxic compound then excreted in the form of urea. However too much ammonia will kill the fish " Ammonia Poisoning " which is a very common disease among fish.
This
what is cytoplasm
uzoka Reply
cytoplasm is fluid of cell.
Deepak
how many major types of Cloning
Saeed Reply
two
amir
two
Zulf
comparative anatomy of gymnosperms?
Meenakshi Reply
anatomy of gymnosperms
Meenakshi
how genes are regulated
Ainjue Reply
what is storage of glycogen
Student Reply
glycogen is a protein content
Najeem
how many times breathing a day normally does a person have
Vernalyn Reply
100
Aadil
on average 18000 times a day when resting.
gagan

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Source:  OpenStax, Concepts of biology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 29, 2016 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11487/1.9
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