Characteristics of Life

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, energy processing, and evolution. When viewed together, these nine 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, 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. 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 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 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.


What is Homeostasis?

Living Things Must Maintain Homeostasis. Homeostasis means “steady state”. Homeostasis is the tendency of an organism or cell to maintain a constant internal environment. Living things constantly adjust to internal and external changes. Homeostasis means to maintain dynamic equilibrium in the body. It is dynamic because it is constantly adjusting to the changes that the body’s systems encounter. It is equilibrium because body functions are kept within specific ranges or normal limits.

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. Even an animal that is apparently inactive is maintaining this homeostatic equilibrium. An inability to maintain homeostasis may lead to death or a disease, a condition known as homeostatic imbalance.

Homeostasis, in a general sense, refers to stability, balance, or equilibrium. Physiologically, it is the body’s attempt to maintain a constant and balanced internal environment, which requires persistent monitoring and adjustments as conditions change.  Adjustment of physiological systems within the body is called homeostatic regulation, which involves three parts or mechanisms:   

  • Sensory receptors
  • Control center – (Brain)
  • Effector organs ( muscles / glands) 

Components of a feedback loop


  •  The sensory receptor receives information that something in the environment is changing. A change in the internal or external environment is called a stimulus and is detected by a receptor. sensory receptor monitors a physiological value. This value is reported to the control center.
  • The control center or integration center (Brain) receives and processes information from the sensory receptor.
  • The effector organ responds to the commands of the control center by either opposing or enhancing the stimulus. The effector is a muscle (that contracts or relaxes) or a gland that secretes.

Maintenance of  Homeostasis by Feedback loops

When a change occurs in an animal’s environment, an adjustment must be made. The receptor senses the change in the environment, then sends a signal to the control center (in most cases, the brain) which in turn generates a response that is signaled to an effector.  Homeostasis is controlled by the nervous and endocrine system of mammals. Homeostatsis is maintained by negative feedback loops. Positive feedback loops actually push the organism further out of homeostasis, but may be necessary for life to occur.

Types of homeostatic  feedback systems / mechanisms:

  • Negative Feedback Mechanism
  • Positive Feedback Mechanism
 Examples for Homeostasis

Negative Feedback Mechanism maintains

Positive Feedback Mechanism

Body Temperature
Blood pressure
Blood Clotting
Blood Sugar
Blood pH

Negative Feedback Mechanisms

Any homeostatic process that changes the direction of the stimulus is a negative feedback loop. It may either increase or decrease the stimulus, but the stimulus is not allowed to continue as it did before the receptor sensed it. In other words, if a level is too high, the body does something to bring it down, and conversely, if a level is too low, the body does something to make it go up. Hence the term negative feedback.

Thermoregulation: :

Thermoregulation is a process that allows your body to maintain its core internal temperature.  The set point for normal human body temperature is approximately 37°C (98.6°F). Body temperature affects body activities. Body proteins, including enzymes, begin to denature and lose their function with high heat (around 50ºC for mammals). Enzyme activity will decrease by half for every ten degree centigrade drop in temperature, to the point of freezing, with a few exceptions.

During body temperature regulation, temperature receptors in the skin  (sensory receptor) communicate information to the brain (the control center) which signals the  blood vessels and sweat glands in the skin (effectors). As the internal and external environment of the body are constantly changing, adjustments must be made continuously to stay at or near a specific value: the set point. (approximately 37°C / 98.6°F)

Flow chart shows how normal body temperature is maintained. If the body temperature rises, blood vessels dilate, resulting in loss of heat to the environment. Sweat glands secrete fluid. As this fluid evaporates, heat is lost form the body. As a result, the body temperature falls to normal body temperature. If body temperature falls, blood vessels constrict so that heat is conserved. Sweat glands do not secrete fluid. Shivering (involuntary contraction of muscles) releases heat which warms the body. Heat is retained, and body temperature increases to normal.

Flow chart shows how normal body temperature is maintained.

When body temperature exceeds its normal range:

When the brain’s temperature regulation center receives data from the sensors indicating that the body’s temperature exceeds its normal range, the brain (the control center) which signals the effectors: blood vessels and sweat glands in the skin. 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.

When body temperature reduces below  its normal range:

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.

The hypothalamus in Brain controls thermoregulation.

Positive Feedback Mechanism

Positive feedback intensifies a change in the body’s physiological condition rather than reversing it,  maintains the direction of the stimulus, possibly accelerating 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.

Example 1: Labor and Delivery During Childbirth:

The extreme muscular work of labor and delivery are the result of a positive feedback system . 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  (the sensory receptors) that monitor the degree of stretching . These nerve cells send messages to the brain, which in turn causes the pituitary gland at the base of the brain ( control center) 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 comes out of the uterus. At this point, the stretching of the cervix halts, stopping the release of oxytocin.

This diagram shows the steps of a positive feedback loop as a series of stepwise arrows looping around a diagram of an infant within the uterus of a pregnant woman. Initially the head of the baby pushes against the cervix, transmitting nerve impulses from the cervix to the brain. Next the brain stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete oxytocin which is carried in the bloodstream to the uterus. Finally, the oxytocin simulates uterine contractions and pushes the baby harder into the cervix. As the head of the baby pushes against the cervix with greater and greater force, the uterine contractions grow stronger and more frequent. This mechanism is a positive feedback loop.

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.

Example 2: Steps in Blood Clotting

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.

Energy Processing

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.

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 atom is the smallest and most fundamental unit of matter. It consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons. Atoms form molecules. A molecule is a chemical structure consisting of at least two atoms held together by one or more chemical bonds. Many molecules that are biologically important are macromolecules, large molecules that are typically formed by polymerization (a polymer is a large molecule that is made by combining smaller units called monomers, which are simpler than macromolecules). An example of a macromolecule is deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), which contains the instructions for the structure and functioning of all living organisms.

Some cells contain aggregates of macromolecules surrounded by membranes; these are called organelles. Organelles are small structures that exist within cells. Examples of organelles include mitochondria and chloroplasts, which carry out indispensable functions: mitochondria produce energy to power the cell, while chloroplasts enable green plants to utilize the energy in sunlight to make sugars. All living things are made of cells; the cell itself is the smallest fundamental unit of structure and function in living organisms. (This requirement is why viruses are not considered living: they are not made of cells. To make new viruses, they have to invade and hijack the reproductive mechanism of a living cell; only then can they obtain the materials they need to reproduce.) Some organisms consist of a single cell and others are multicellular. Cells are classified as prokaryotic or eukaryotic. Prokaryotes are single-celled or colonial organisms that do not have membrane-bound nuclei; in contrast, the cells of eukaryotes do have membrane-bound organelles and a membrane-bound nucleus.

In larger organisms, cells combine to make tissues, which are groups of similar cells carrying out similar or related functions. Organs are collections of tissues grouped together performing a common function. Organs are present not only in animals but also in plants. An organ system is a higher level of organization that consists of functionally related organs. Mammals have many organ systems. For instance, the circulatory system transports blood through the body and to and from the lungs; it includes organs such as the heart and blood vessels. Organisms are individual living entities. For example, each tree in a forest is an organism. Single-celled prokaryotes and single-celled eukaryotes are also considered organisms and are typically referred to as microorganisms.

All the individuals of a species living within a specific area are collectively called a population. For example, a forest may include many pine trees. All of these pine trees represent the population of pine trees in this forest. Different populations may live in the same specific area. For example, the forest with the pine trees includes populations of flowering plants and also insects and microbial populations. A community is the sum of populations inhabiting a particular area. For instance, all of the trees, flowers, insects, and other populations in a forest form the forest’s community. The forest itself is an ecosystem. An ecosystem consists of all the living things in a particular area together with the abiotic, non-living parts of that environment such as nitrogen in the soil or rain water. At the highest level of organization, the biosphere is the collection of all ecosystems, and it represents the zones of life on earth. It includes land, water, and even the atmosphere to a certain extent.

Art Connection

A flow chart shows the hierarchy of living organisms. From smallest to largest, this hierarchy includes: (1) Organelles, such as nuclei, that exist inside cells. (2) Cells, such as a red blood cell. (3) Tissues, such as human skin tissue. (4) Organs such as the stomach make up the human digestive system, an example of an organ system. (5) Organisms, populations, and communities. In a forest, each pine tree is an organism. Together, all the pine trees make up a population. All the plant and animal species in the forest comprise a community. (6) Ecosystems: the coastal ecosystem in the Southeastern United States includes living organisms and the environment in which they live. (7) The biosphere: encompasses all the ecosystems on Earth.

The biological levels of organization of living things are shown. From a single organelle to the entire biosphere, living organisms are parts of a highly structured hierarchy. (credit “organelles”: modification of work by Umberto Salvagnin; credit “cells”: modification of work by Bruce Wetzel, Harry Schaefer/ National Cancer Institute; credit “tissues”: modification of work by Kilbad; Fama Clamosa; Mikael Häggström; credit “organs”: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal; credit “organisms”: modification of work by “Crystal”/Flickr; credit “ecosystems”: modification of work by US Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters; credit “biosphere”: modification of work by NASA)

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. Tissues exist within organs which exist within organ systems.
  2. Communities exist within populations which exist within ecosystems.
  3. Organelles exist within cells which exist within tissues.
  4. Communities exist within ecosystems which exist in the biosphere.

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 evolution, the process of gradual change during which new species arise from older species. Evolutionary biologists study the evolution of living things in everything from the microscopic world to ecosystems.

The evolution of various life forms on Earth can be summarized in a phylogenetic tree. A phylogenetic tree is a diagram showing the evolutionary relationships among biological species based on similarities and differences in genetic or physical traits or both. A phylogenetic tree is composed of nodes and branches. The internal nodes represent ancestors and are points in evolution when, based on scientific evidence, an ancestor is thought to have diverged to form two new species. The length of each branch is proportional to the time elapsed since the split.

This phylogenetic tree shows that the three domains of life, bacteria, archaea and eukarya, all arose from a common ancestor.

This phylogenetic tree was constructed by microbiologist Carl Woese using data obtained from sequencing ribosomal RNA genes. The tree shows the separation of living organisms into three domains: Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukarya. Bacteria and Archaea are prokaryotes, single-celled organisms lacking intracellular organelles. (credit: Eric Gaba; NASA Astrobiology Institute)


Evolution Connection

Carl Woese and the Phylogenetic TreeIn 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. 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. 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.