Higher Order Structures: Tissues, Organs, Organ Systems


In the body’s organizational hierarchy, tissues occupy a place between cells and organs. That is, a tissue is a group of cells with a similar shape and function. In turn, organs (which make up the body) are comprised of various tissues.

The component cells of a tissue are a specific cell type. A tissue’s cells may be identical, but are not necessarily so. Several tissues will comprise an organ. For example, the contractile cells of skeletal muscle are bundled together to make muscle fiber tissue. In turn, endomysium cells form enclosing tissue that wraps around bundles of muscle fibers, like a tortilla around the filling of a burrito. Several of these structures are in turn wrapped by another tissue, perimysium. Finally, bundles of these are surrounded by a sheath of yet another tissue, epimysium, which covers the outside of the whole muscle. Yet more tissue is necessary for the muscle to function in the body. Connective tissue comprising ligaments attaches the muscle to the skeleton, and nerve tissue conducts impulses from the nervous system to signal the muscle to contract.

Skeletal muscle is only one kind of tissue. The body is made of dozens of different tissues, but broadly speaking there are four types of tissues.

  • Muscle tissue (in turn divided into skeletal, smooth and cardiac) is contractile. It allows locomotion of the body. It also allows necessary contractions of various organs such as the heart and of respiratory and digestive systems.
  • Nerve tissue comprises the body’s wiring system. It conducts signals between the nervous system and various organs.
  • Connective tissue holds the body together. It is found in most organs, anchoring them to the skeleton and other organs. Types of connective tissue include fibrous tissue, fatty tissue, loose tissue and cartilage. Connective tissue also includes bone, blood and lymph.
  • Epithelial tissue is the body’s protection against the outside environment. Skin tissue helps to maintain homeostasis. It helps monitor and control temperature, and resists abrasion, foreign bodies and damaging chemicals. Internally, epithelial tissue lines most internal cavities, secreting or absorbing nutrients.
diagrams of the four different tissue types

Tissues form during development. Stem cells in the embryo differentiate into various cell types. The necessary genes in the cells turn on or off, resulting in the production of proteins that characterize a cell’s structure and function. Early in embryonic growth, the cells migrate to the appropriate location in the body. Once there, they proliferate so that the tissue can perform its needed function.

Different tissues arise from the source cells in each of the three primary germ cell layers. For example, the epithelium is derived from the ectoderm and endoderm. Connective tissue arises largely from the mesoderm. Gastrointestinal and respiratory tissues arise mostly from the endoderm. Programmed cell death, or apoptosis, may take place to eliminate transitory tissues in the embryo, such as the pronephros, a simple excretory organ that is later replaced by the kidney.


The organ level of organization in the body may be the most familiar to us from our everyday experiences. Many of the common ailments we hear about—an upset stomach, a broken bone, lung disease, skin cancer—are named for the organs they affect.

An organ is made up of tissues that work together to perform a specific function for the body as a whole. Groups of organs that perform related functions are organized into organ systems, which perform more general functions. Table 1 describes the structures and functions of some common organs.

Table 1. Structure and Function of Organs
Organ Primary function(s) Tissues it contains Organ system(s) it is a part of
brain control of body systems and behavior; cognition nervous, connective, epithelial nervous system; endocrine system
skin protection; support and containment; temperature and fluid regulation epithelial, nervous, connective, muscular integumentary system
stomach chemical and mechanical digestion of food epithelial, connective, muscular, nervous digestive system
sternum (breastbone) support; protection; blood cell production epithelial, connective, nervous skeletal system; immune system; cardiovascular system
kidney waste removal; fluid regulation epithelial, connective, nervous urinary system

Organ Systems, The Whole Body, and Populations

Organ systems are made up of organs that work together to perform a specific function for the body as a whole. Table 2 describes the organ systems and their primary organs and physiological functions.

Table 2. Organ Systems
Organ system Key Organ(s) Primary function(s)
integumentary skin support; protection; regulation of fluid levels
skeletal bones, cartilage support; protection; movement; blood cell production
muscular muscles, tendons support; movement
urinary kidneys, bladder, urethra waste removal; regulation of fluid levels
digestive tongue, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine, gallbladder, rectum digestion of food; waste removal
respiratory trachea, lungs gas exchange; regulation of temperature
cardiovascular heart, blood vessels transport of materials through the body; regulation of temperature
nervous brain, spinal cord control of behavior and body systems; cognition
endocrine glands control of the body systems and development
immune thymus, tonsils, spleen defense agains infection
lymphatic lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels immunity; regulating fluid balance
reproductive penis, testes, prostate (male); uterus, ovaries, vagina (female) reproduction

The Whole Body

The organ systems of the body all work together to maintain proper physiological functions. Many times in the arena of anatomy and physiology, including in this course, we closely examine the molecules, cells, tissues and organs of the body to learn their forms and functions. However, it is important to consider that every molecule works as part of the entire system. Endocrine disorders such as diabetes affect glucose levels in the body. Altered blood glucose levels can affect many organ systems. For example, the immune system may not heal as well, the urinary system may experience kidney damage, and the cardiovascular system can experience vascular damage, even to the point of causing blindness. In the body, everything is interconnected.


Beyond the body, populations and environment can impact physiology and health. Some diseases and disorders are common to certain populations, most likely because of genetic connections. Also, environmental conditions can impact health. Particulates in the air can impact respiratory function. We are also affected by foods, exercise, sun exposure and other environmental conditions.