All groups of living organisms share several key characteristics or functions:
- Order / Organization
- Sensitivity / response to stimuli
- Growth and development
- Energy processing
When viewed together, these eight characteristics serve to define life. Let’s examine what each of these characteristics means in a scientific sense.
Order / Organization
Organisms, in the most basic form, consist of highly organized structures that are made up 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.
Sensitivity / Response to Stimuli
Organisms respond to diverse stimuli. For example, plants can bend toward a source of light 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.
Single-celled organisms reproduce by duplicating their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic material) and then dividing it equally as the cell prepares to divide to form two new cells.
Many multicellular organisms produce specialized reproductive cells that will form new individuals. When reproduction occurs, DNA is passed along to an organism’s offspring. Genes, made up of DNA, are the basic units by which traits are passed from parent to offspring. DNA, and the information that it encodes in genes, is the reason that offspring will belong to the same species as parents and will have similar characteristics.
All living organisms exhibit a “fit” to their environment. Biologists refer to this fit as adaptation and it is a consequence of evolution by natural selection, which operates in every lineage of reproducing organisms. Examples of adaptations are diverse and unique, from heat-resistant Archaea that live in boiling hot springs to the tongue length of a nectar-feeding moth that matches the size of the flower from which it feeds. All adaptations enhance the reproductive potential of the individual exhibiting them, including their ability to survive to reproduce. Adaptations are not constant. As an environment changes, natural selection causes the characteristics of the individuals in a population to track those changes.
Growth and Development
Organisms grow and develop according to specific instructions coded for by their genes. These genes provide instructions that will direct cellular growth and development, ensuring that a species’ young (Figure 4) 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, such as the transport of nutrients, response to stimuli, and coping with environmental stresses. For example, organ systems such as the digestive or circulatory systems perform specific functions like carrying oxygen throughout the body, removing wastes, delivering nutrients to every cell, and cooling the body.
All organisms (such as the California condor shown in Figure 5) 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 from molecules they take in.
To function properly, cells require appropriate conditions such as proper temperature, pH, and concentrations 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 a process called homeostasis or “steady state”—the ability of an organism to maintain constant internal conditions. For example, many organisms regulate their body temperature in a process known as thermoregulation. Organisms that live in cold climates, such as the polar bear (Figure 6), have body structures that help them withstand low temperatures and conserve body heat. In hot climates, organisms have methods (such as perspiration in humans or panting in dogs) that help them to shed excess body heat.
Spotlight on Homeostasis
Maintaining homeostasis requires that the body continuously monitor its internal conditions. From body temperature to blood pressure to levels of certain nutrients, each physiological condition has a particular set point. A set point is the physiological value around which the normal range fluctuates. A normal range is the restricted set of values that is optimally healthful and stable. For example, the set point for normal human body temperature is approximately 37°C (98.6°F). Physiological parameters, such as body temperature and blood pressure, tend to fluctuate within a normal range a few degrees above and below that point. Control centers in the brain and other parts of the body monitor and react to deviations from homeostasis using negative feedback. Negative feedback is a mechanism that reverses a deviation from the set point. Therefore, negative feedback maintains body parameters within their normal range. The maintenance of homeostasis by negative feedback goes on throughout the body at all times, and an understanding of negative feedback is thus fundamental to an understanding of human physiology.
A negative feedback system has three basic components. A sensor, also referred to a receptor, is a component of a feedback system that monitors a physiological value. This value is reported to the control center. The control center is the component in a feedback system that compares the value to the normal range. If the value deviates too much from the set point, then the control center activates an effector. An effector is the component in a feedback system that causes a change to reverse the situation and return the value to the normal range. In the body temperature example, the sensor is nerve cells in the skin and brain. These signal the temperature regulatory center in the brain (control center), which cause sweat glands to begin producing sweat (effector).
Negative Feedback Loop
In order to set the system in motion, something must drive a physiological parameter beyond its normal range (for example, blood glucose becomes too high because you ate three chocolate donuts). This stimulus is detected by a specific sensor. In the control of blood glucose, specific cells in the pancreas detect excess glucose (the stimulus) in the bloodstream. These pancreatic cells respond to the increased level of blood glucose by releasing the hormone insulin into the bloodstream. The insulin signals skeletal muscle fibers, fat cells, and liver cells to take up the excess glucose, removing it from the bloodstream. As glucose concentration in the bloodstream drops, the decrease in concentration—the actual negative feedback—is detected by other cells in the pancreases and insulin release stops. This prevents blood sugar levels from continuing to drop below the normal range.
Humans have a similar temperature regulation feedback system that works by promoting either heat loss or heat gain (Figure 7(b)). When the brain’s temperature regulation center receives data from the sensors indicating that the body’s temperature exceeds its normal range, it stimulates a cluster of brain cells referred to as the “heat-loss center.” This stimulation has three major effects:
- Blood vessels in the skin begin to dilate allowing more blood from the body core to flow to the surface of the skin allowing the heat to radiate into the environment.
- As blood flow to the skin increases, sweat glands are activated to increase their output. As the sweat evaporates from the skin surface into the surrounding air, it takes heat with it.
- The depth of respiration increases, and a person may breathe through an open mouth instead of through the nasal passageways. This further increases heat loss from the lungs.
In contrast, activation of the brain’s heat-gain center by exposure to cold reduces blood flow to the skin, and blood returning from the limbs is diverted into a network of deep veins. This arrangement traps heat closer to the body core and restricts heat loss. If heat loss is severe, the brain triggers an increase in random signals to skeletal muscles, causing them to contract and producing shivering. The muscle contractions of shivering release heat while using up ATP. The brain triggers the thyroid gland in the endocrine system to release thyroid hormone, which increases metabolic activity and heat production in cells throughout the body. The brain also signals the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline), a hormone that causes the breakdown of glycogen into glucose, which can be used as an energy source. The breakdown of glycogen into glucose also results in increased metabolism and heat production.
Positive feedback intensifies a change in the body’s physiological condition rather than reversing it. A deviation from the normal range results in more change, and the system moves farther away from the normal range. Positive feedback in the body is normal only when there is a definite end point. Childbirth and the body’s response to blood loss are two examples of positive feedback loops that are normal but are activated only when needed.
Childbirth at full term is an example of a situation in which the maintenance of the existing body state is not desired. Enormous changes in the mother’s body are required to expel the baby at the end of pregnancy. And the events of childbirth, once begun, must progress rapidly to a conclusion or the life of the mother and the baby are at risk. The extreme muscular work of labor and delivery are the result of a positive feedback system
Positive Feedback Loop
Normal childbirth is driven by a positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop results in a change in the body’s status, rather than a return to homeostasis.
The first contractions of labor (the stimulus) push the baby toward the cervix (the lowest part of the uterus). The cervix contains stretch-sensitive nerve cells that monitor the degree of stretching (the sensors). These nerve cells send messages to the brain, which in turn causes the pituitary gland at the base of the brain to release the hormone oxytocin into the bloodstream. Oxytocin causes stronger contractions of the smooth muscles in of the uterus (the effectors), pushing the baby further down the birth canal. This causes even greater stretching of the cervix. The cycle of stretching, oxytocin release, and increasingly more forceful contractions stops only when the baby is born. At this point, the stretching of the cervix halts, stopping the release of oxytocin.
A second example of positive feedback centers on reversing extreme damage to the body. Following a penetrating wound, the most immediate threat is excessive blood loss. Less blood circulating means reduced blood pressure and reduced perfusion (penetration of blood) to the brain and other vital organs. If perfusion is severely reduced, vital organs will shut down and the person will die. The body responds to this potential catastrophe by releasing substances in the injured blood vessel wall that begin the process of blood clotting. As each step of clotting occurs, it stimulates the release of more clotting substances. This accelerates the processes of clotting and sealing off the damaged area. Clotting is contained in a local area based on the tightly controlled availability of clotting proteins. This is an adaptive, life-saving cascade of events.
Text adapted from: OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016 http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Spotlight adapted from: OpenStax, Anatomy and physiology. OpenStax CNX. August 10, 2019. https://cnx.org/contents/FPtK1zmh@16.1:8Q_5pQQo@8/1-5-Homeostasis