THE LIVING WORLD

Unit One. The Study of Life

 

1. The Science of Biology

 

1.4. Biological Themes

 

Just as every house is organized into thematic areas such as bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom, so the living world is organized by major themes, such as how energy flows within the living world from one part to another. As you study biology in this text, five general themes will emerge repeatedly, themes that serve to both unify and explain biology as a science (table 1.1):

1. evolution;

2. the flow of energy;

3. cooperation;

4. structure determines function;

5. homeostasis.

 

Evolution

Evolution is genetic change in a species over time. Charles Darwin was an English naturalist who, in 1859, proposed the idea that this change is a result of a process called natural selection. Simply stated, those organisms whose characteristics make them better able to survive the challenges of their environment live to reproduce, passing their favorable characteristics on to their offspring. Darwin was thoroughly familiar with variation in domesticated animals (in addition to many nondomesticated organisms), and he knew that varieties of pigeons could be selected by breeders to exhibit exaggerated characteristics, a process called artificial selection. You can see some of these extreme-looking pigeons pictured in table 1.1 under the heading “evolution.” We now know that the characteristics selected are passed on through generations because DNA is transmitted from parent to offspring. Darwin visualized how selection in nature could be similar to that which had produced the different varieties of pigeons. Thus, the many forms of life we see about us on earth today, and the way we ourselves are constructed and function, reflect a long history of natural selection. Evolution will be explored in more detail in chapter 14.

 

The Flow of Energy

All organisms require energy to carry out the activities of living—to build bodies and do work and think thoughts. All of the energy used by most organisms comes from the sun and is passed in one direction through ecosystems. The simplest way to understand the flow of energy through the living world is to look at who uses it. The first stage of energy’s journey is its capture by green plants, algae, and some bacteria by the process of photosynthesis. This process uses energy from the sun to synthesize sugars that photosynthetic organisms like plants store in their bodies. Plants then serve as a source of life-driving energy for animals that eat them. Other animals, like the eagle in table 1.1, may then eat the plant eaters. At each stage, some energy is used for the processes of living, some is transferred, and much is lost, primarily as heat. The flow of energy is a key factor in shaping ecosystems, affecting how many and what kinds of animals live in a community.

 

Cooperation

The ants cooperating in the upper right photo in table 1.1 protect the plant on which they live from predators and from shading by other plants, while this plant returns the favor by providing the ants with nutrients (the yellow structures at the tips of the leaves). This type of cooperation between different kinds of organisms has played a critical role in the evolution of life on earth. For example, organisms of two different species that live in direct contact, like the ants and the plant on which they live, form a type of relationship called symbiosis. Animal cells possess organelles that are the descendants of symbiotic bacteria, and symbiotic fungi helped plants first invade land from the sea. The coevolution of flowering plants and insects—where changes in flowers influenced insect evolution and, in turn, changes in insects influenced flower evolution— has been responsible for much of life’s great diversity.

 

Structure Determines Function

One of the most obvious lessons of biology is that biological structures are very well suited to their functions. You will see this at every level of organization: Within cells, the shape of the proteins called enzymes that cells use to carry out chemical reactions are precisely suited to match the chemicals the enzymes must manipulate. Within the many kinds of organisms in the living world, body structures seem carefully designed to carry out their functions—the long tongue with which the moth in table 1.1 sucks nectar from deep within a flower is one example. The superb fit of structure to function in the living world is no accident. Life has existed on earth for over 2 billion years, a long time for evolution to favor changes that better suit organisms to meet the challenges of living. It should come as no surprise to you that after all this honing and adjustment, biological structures carry out their functions well.

 

Homeostasis

The high degree of specialization we see among complex organisms is only possible because these organisms act to maintain a relatively stable internal environment, a process introduced earlier called homeostasis. Without this constancy, many of the complex interactions that need to take place within organisms would be impossible, just as a city cannot function without rules to maintain order. Maintaining homeostasis in a body as complex as yours or the hippo’s in table 1.1 requires a great deal of signaling back-and-forth between cells.

As already stated, you will encounter these biological themes repeatedly in this text. But just as a budding architect must learn more than the parts of buildings, so your study of biology should teach you more than a list of themes, concepts, and parts of organisms. Biology is a dynamic science that will affect your life in many ways, and that lesson is one of the most important you will learn. It is also a great deal of fun.

 

Key Learning Outcome 1.4. The five general themes of biology are (1) evolution, (2) the flow of energy, (3) cooperation, (4) structure determines function, and (5) homeostasis.

 

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Evolution. Charles Darwin's studies of artificial selection in pigeons provided key evidence that selection could produce the sorts of changes predicted by his theory of evolution. The differences that have been obtained by artificial selection of the wild European rock pigeon (top) and such domestic races as the red fantail (middle) and the fairy swallow (bottom), with its fantastic tufts of feathers around j its feet, are indeed so great that the birds probably would, if wild, be classified in different major groups.

 

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Cooperation. Latin American ants live within the hollow thorns of certain species of acacia trees. The nectar at the bases of the leaves and at the tips of the leaflets provide food. The ants supply the trees with organic nutrients and protection.

 

 

The Flow of Energy. Energy passes from the sun to plants to plant-eating animals to animaleating animals, such as this eagle

 

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Structure Determines Function. With its long tongue, this moth is able to reach the nectar deep within these flowers.

 

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Homeostasis. Homeostasis often involves water balance to maintain proper blood chemistry. All complex organisms need water—some, like this hippo, luxuriate in it. Others, like the kangaroo rat that lives in arid conditions where water is scarce, obtain water from food and never actually drink.