Introduction to the Tissue Level of Organization

Learning Objectives

  • Define the terminology, both directional and anatomical, associated with anatomy of the human body
  • Identify the main tissue types and discuss their roles in the human body
  • Explain the process of tissue repair
  • Describe the structure of the human body in terms of six levels of organization
  • List the eleven organ systems of the human body and identify at least one organ and one major function of each
  • Identify the major organs of the digestive system and state the functions.
  • Describe how carbohydrates, proteins and lipids are digested and absorbed into the blood.
  • Explain Glucose Homeostasis.

The body contains at least 200 distinct cell types. These cells contain essentially the same internal structures yet they vary enormously in shape and function. The different types of cells are not randomly distributed throughout the body; rather they occur in organized layers, a level of organization referred to as tissue. The micrograph that opens this chapter shows the high degree of organization among different types of cells in the tissue of the cervix. You can also see how that organization breaks down when cancer takes over the regular mitotic functioning of a cell.

The variety in shape reflects the many different roles that cells fulfill in your body. The human body starts as a single cell at fertilization. As this fertilized egg divides, it gives rise to trillions of cells, each built from the same blueprint, but organizing into tissues and becoming irreversibly committed to a developmental pathway.

Directional Terms

This illustration shows two diagrams: one of a side view of a female and the other of an anterior view of a female. Each diagram shows directional terms using double-sided arrows. The cranial-distal arrow runs vertically behind the torso and lower abdomen. The cranial arrow is pointing toward the head while the caudal arrow is pointing toward the tail bone. The posterior/anterior arrow is running horizontally through the back and chest. The posterior or dorsal arrow is pointing toward the back while the anterior, or ventral arrow, is pointing toward the abdomen. On the anterior view, the proximal/distal arrow is on the right arm. The proximal arrow is pointing up toward the shoulder while the distal arrow is pointing down toward the hand. The lateral-medial arrow is a horizontal arrow on the abdomen. The medial arrow is pointing toward the navel while the lateral arrow is pointing away from the body to the right. Right refers to the right side of the woman’s body from her perspective while left refers to the left side of the woman’s body from her perspective.

Figure 2. Directional Terms Applied to the Human Body. Paired directional terms are shown as applied to the human body.

Certain directional anatomical terms appear throughout this and any other anatomy textbook (Figure 2). These terms are essential for describing the relative locations of different body structures. For instance, an anatomist might describe one band of tissue as “inferior to” another or a physician might describe a tumor as “superficial to” a deeper body structure. Commit these terms to memory to avoid confusion when you are studying or describing the locations of particular body parts.

  • Anterior (or ventral) Describes the front or direction toward the front of the body. The toes are anterior to the foot.
  • Posterior (or dorsal) Describes the back or direction toward the back of the body. The popliteus is posterior to the patella.
  • Superior (or cranial) describes a position above or higher than another part of the body proper. The orbits are superior to the oris.
  • Inferior (or caudal) describes a position below or lower than another part of the body proper; near or toward the tail (in humans, the coccyx, or lowest part of the spinal column). The pelvis is inferior to the abdomen.
  •  Lateral describes the side or direction toward the side of the body. The thumb (pollex) is lateral to the digits.
  •  Medial describes the middle or direction toward the middle of the body. The hallux is the medial toe.
  •  Proximal describes a position in a limb that is nearer to the point of attachment or the trunk of the body. The brachium is proximal to the antebrachium.
  •  Distal describes a position in a limb that is farther from the point of attachment or the trunk of the body. The crus is distal to the femur.
  •  Superficial describes a position closer to the surface of the body. The skin is superficial to the bones.
  •  Deep describes a position farther from the surface of the body. The brain is deep to the skull.

Body Planes

This illustration shows a female viewed from her right, front side. The anatomical planes are depicted as blue rectangles passing through the woman’s body. The frontal or coronal plane enters through the right side of the body, passes through the body, and exits from the left side. It divides the body into front (anterior) and back (posterior) halves. The sagittal plane enters through the back and emerges through the front of the body. It divides the body into right and left halves. The transverse plane passes through the body perpendicular to the frontal and sagittal planes. This plane is a cross section which divides the body into upper and lower halves.

Figure 3. Planes of the Body. The three planes most commonly used in anatomical and medical imaging are the sagittal, frontal (or coronal), and transverse plane.

section is a two-dimensional surface of a three-dimensional structure that has been cut. Modern medical imaging devices enable clinicians to obtain “virtual sections” of living bodies. We call these scans. Body sections and scans can be correctly interpreted, however, only if the viewer understands the plane along which the section was made. A plane is an imaginary two-dimensional surface that passes through the body. There are three planes commonly referred to in anatomy and medicine, as illustrated in Figure 3.

  • The sagittal plane is the plane that divides the body or an organ vertically into right and left sides. If this vertical plane runs directly down the middle of the body, it is called the midsagittal or median plane. If it divides the body into unequal right and left sides, it is called a parasagittal plane or less commonly a longitudinal section.
  • The frontal plane is the plane that divides the body or an organ into an anterior (front) portion and a posterior (rear) portion. The frontal plane is often referred to as a coronal plane. (“Corona” is Latin for “crown.”)
  • The transverse plane is the plane that divides the body or organ horizontally into upper and lower portions. Transverse planes produce images referred to as cross sections.

Body Cavities and Serous Membranes

By the broadest definition, a body cavity is any fluid-filled space in a multicellular organism. However, the term usually refers to the space where internal organs develop, located between the skin and the outer lining of the gut cavity. “The human body cavity,” normally refers to the ventral body cavity because it is by far the largest one in volume. Blood vessels are not considered cavities but may be held within cavities. Most cavities provide room for the organs to adjust to changes in the organism’s position. They usually contains protective membranes and sometimes bones that protect the organs.

Anatomical terminology for body cavities

Humans have multiple body cavities, including the cranial cavity, the vertebral cavity, the thoracic cavity (containing the pericardial cavity and the pleural cavity), the abdominal cavity, and the pelvic cavity. In mammals, the diaphragm separates the thoracic cavity from the abdominal cavity.


The dorsal cavity is a continuous cavity located on the dorsal side of the body. It houses the organs of the upper central nervous system, including the brain and the spinal cord. The meninges is a multi-layered membrane within the dorsal cavity that envelops and protects the brain and spinal cord.

  • Cranial: The cranial cavity is the anterior portion of the dorsal cavity consisting of the space inside the skull. This cavity contains the brain, the meninges of the brain, and cerebrospinal fluid.
  • Vertebral: The vertebral cavity is the posterior portion of the dorsal cavity and contains the structures within the vertebral column. These include the spinal cord, the meninges of the spinal cord, and the fluid-filled spaces between them. This is the most narrow of all body cavities, sometimes described as threadlike.


The ventral cavity, the interior space in the front of the body, contains many different organ systems. The organs within the ventral cavity are also called viscera. The ventral cavity has anterior and posterior portions divided by the diaphragm, a sheet of skeletal muscle found beneath the lungs.

  • Thoracic:  The thoracic cavity is the anterior ventral body cavity found within the rib cage in the torso. It houses the primary organs of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, such as the heart and lungs, but also includes organs from other systems, such as the esophagus and the thymus gland. The thoracic cavity is lined by two types of mesothelium, a type of membrane tissue that lines the ventral cavity: the pleura lining of the lungs, and the pericadium lining of the heart.
  • Abdominopelvic: The abdominoplevic cavity is the posterior ventral body cavity found beneath the thoracic cavity and diaphragm. It is generally divided into the abdominal and pelvic cavities. The abdominal cavity is not contained within bone and houses many organs of the digestive and renal systems, as well as some organs of the endocrine system, such as the adrenal glands. The pelvic cavity is contained within the pelvis and houses the bladder and reproductive system. The abdominopelvic cavity is lined by a type of mesothelium called the peritoneum.

Abdominal Regions and Quadrants

To promote clear communication, for instance about the location of a patient’s abdominal pain or a suspicious mass, health care providers typically divide up the cavity into either nine regions or four quadrants (Figure 4).

This illustration has two parts. Part A shows the abdominopelvic regions. These regions divide the abdomen into nine squares. The upper right square is the right hypochondriac region and contains the base of the right ribs. The upper left square is the left hypochondriac region and contains the base of the left ribs. The epigastric region is the upper central square and contains the bottom edge of the liver as well as the upper areas of the stomach. The diaphragm curves like an upside down U over these three regions. The central right region is called the right lumbar region and contains the ascending colon and the right edge of the small intestines. The central square contains the transverse colon and the upper regions of the small intestines. The left lumbar region contains the left edge of the transverse colon and the left edge of the small intestine. The lower right square is the right iliac region and contains the right pelvic bones and the ascending colon. The lower left square is the left iliac region and contains the left pelvic bone and the lower left regions of the small intestine. The lower central square contains the bottom of the pubic bones, upper regions of the bladder and the lower region of the small intestine. Part B shows four abdominopelvic quadrants. The right upper quadrant (RUQ) includes the lower right ribs, right side of the liver, and right side of the transverse colon. The left upper quadrant (LUQ) includes the lower left ribs, stomach, and upper left area of the transverse colon. The right lower quadrant (RLQ) includes the right half of the small intestines, ascending colon, right pelvic bone and upper right area of the bladder. The left lower quadrant (LLQ) contains the left half of the small intestine and left pelvic bone.

Figure 4. Regions and Quadrants of the Peritoneal Cavity. There are (a) nine abdominal regions and (b) four abdominal quadrants in the peritoneal cavity.

The more detailed regional approach subdivides the cavity with one horizontal line immediately inferior to the ribs and one immediately superior to the pelvis, and two vertical lines drawn as if dropped from the midpoint of each clavicle (collarbone). There are nine resulting regions. The simpler quadrants approach, which is more commonly used in medicine, subdivides the cavity with one horizontal and one vertical line that intersect at the patient’s umbilicus (navel).

Membranes of the Anterior (Ventral) Body Cavity

serous membrane (also referred to a serosa) is one of the thin membranes that cover the walls and organs in the thoracic and abdominopelvic cavities. The parietal layers of the membranes line the walls of the body cavity (pariet- refers to a cavity wall). The visceral layer of the membrane covers the organs (the viscera). Between the parietal and visceral layers is a very thin, fluid-filled serous space, or cavity (Figure 5).

This diagram shows the pericardium on the left next to an analogy of a hand punching a balloon on the right. The pericardium is a two-layered sac that surrounds the entire heart except where the blood vessels emerge on the heart’s superior side. The pericardium has two layers because it folds over itself in the shape of the letter U. The inner layer that borders the heart is the visceral pericardium while the outer layer is the parietal pericardium. The space between the two layers is called the pericardial cavity. The heart sits in the cavity much like a fist punching into a balloon. The balloon surrounds the lower part of the fist with a two-layered sac, with the top of the balloon, where it contacts the fist, being analogous to the visceral pericardium. The bottom of the balloon, where it is tied off, is analogous to the parietal pericardium. The air within the balloon is analogous to the pericardial cavity.

Figure 5. Serous Membrane. Serous membrane lines the pericardial cavity and reflects back to cover the heart—much the same way that an underinflated balloon would form two layers surrounding a fist.

There are three serous cavities and their associated membranes. The pleura is the serous membrane that surrounds the lungs in the pleural cavity; the pericardium is the serous membrane that surrounds the heart in the pericardial cavity; and the peritoneum is the serous membrane that surrounds several organs in the abdominopelvic cavity. The serous fluid produced by the serous membranes reduces friction between the walls of the cavities and the internal organs when they move, such as when the lungs inflate or the heart beats. Both the parietal and visceral serosa secrete the thin, slippery serous fluid that prevents friction when an organ slides past the walls of a cavity. In the pleural cavities, pleural fluid prevents friction between the lungs and the walls of the cavity. In the pericardial sac, pericardial fluid prevents friction between the heart and the walls of the pericardial sac. And in the peritoneal cavity, peritoneal fluid prevents friction between abdominal and pelvic organs and the wall of the cavity. The serous membranes therefore provide additional protection to the viscera they enclose by reducing friction that could lead to inflammation of the organs.