Created by CK-12/Adapted by Christine Miller
You’ve probably seen this famous statue created by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. Rodin’s skill as a sculptor is especially evident here because the statue — which is made of bronze — looks so lifelike. How does a bronze statue differ from a living, breathing human being or other living organism? What is life? What does it mean to be alive? Science has answers to these questions.
Characteristics of Living Things
To be classified as a living thing, most scientists agree that an object must have all seven of the traits listed below. Humans share these characteristics with other living things.
- Response to stimuli
All living things are able to maintain a more-or-less constant internal environment. Regardless of the conditions around them, they can keep things relatively stable on the inside. The condition in which a system is maintained in a more-or-less steady state is called . Human beings, for example, maintain a stable internal body temperature. If you go outside when the air temperature is below freezing, your body doesn’t freeze. Instead, by shivering and other means, it maintains a stable internal temperature.
Living things have multiple levels of organization. Their molecules are organized into one or more cells. A is the basic unit of the structure and function of living things. Cells are the building blocks of living organisms. An average adult human being, for example, consists of trillions of cells. Living things may appear very different from one another on the outside, but their cells are very similar. Compare the human cells and onion cells in Figures 2.2.3 and 2.2.4. What similarities do you see?
All living things can use energy. They require energy to maintain internal conditions (homeostasis), to grow, and to execute other processes. Living cells use the “machinery” of , which is the building up and breaking down of chemical compounds. Living things can transform energy by building up large molecules from smaller ones. This form of metabolism is called Living things can also break down, or decompose, large organic molecules into smaller ones. This form of metabolism is called .
Consider weight lifters who eat high-protein diets. A protein is a large molecule made up of several small amino acids. When we eat proteins, our digestive system breaks them down into amino acids (catabolism), so that they are small enough to be absorbed by the digestive system and into the blood. From there, amino acids are transported to muscles, where they are converted back to proteins (anabolism).
All living things have the capacity for growth. Growth is an increase in size that occurs when there is a higher rate of than . A human infant, for example, has changed dramatically in size by the time it reaches adulthood, as is apparent from the image below. In what other ways do we change as we grow from infancy to adulthood?
A human infant has a lot of growing to do before adulthood.
Adaptations and Evolution
An adaptation is a characteristic that helps living things survive and reproduce in a given environment. It comes about because living things have the ability to change over time in response to the environment. A change in the characteristics of living things over time is called evolution. It develops in a population of organisms through random genetic mutations and natural selection.
Response to Stimuli
All living things detect changes in their environment and respond to them. These stimuli can be internal or external, and the response can take many forms, from the movement of a unicellular organism in response to external chemicals (called chemotaxis) to complex reactions involving all the senses of a multicellular organism. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (called phototropism).
Click through the images below: the venus fly trap, the cat, and the flower are all showing response to a stimuli.
Figure 2.2.6 Examples of responses to environmental stimuli.
All living things are capable of , the process by which living things give rise to offspring. Reproduction may be as simple as a single cell dividing to form two daughter cells, which is how bacteria reproduce. Reproduction in human beings and many other organisms, of course, is much more complicated. Nonetheless, whether a living thing is a human being or a bacterium, it is normally capable of reproduction.
Feature: Myth vs. Reality
Myth: Viruses are living things.
Reality: The traditional scientific view of viruses is that they originate from bits of DNA or RNA shed from the cells of living things, but that they are not living things themselves. Scientists have long argued that viruses are not living things because they do not exhibit most of the defining traits of living organisms. A single virus, called a virion, consists of a set of genes (DNA or RNA) inside a protective protein coat, called a capsid. Viruses have organization, but they are not cells, and they do not possess the cellular “machinery” that living things use to carry out life processes. As a result, viruses cannot undertake metabolism, maintain homeostasis, or grow.
They do not seem to respond to their environment, and they can reproduce only by invading and using “tools” inside host cells to produce more virions. The only traits viruses seem to share with living things is the ability to evolve adaptations to their environment. In fact, some viruses evolve so quickly that it is difficult to design drugs and vaccines against them! That’s why maintaining protection from the viral disease influenza, for example, requires a new flu vaccine each year.
Within the last decade, new discoveries in virology (the study of viruses) suggest that this traditional view about viruses may be incorrect, and that the “myth” that viruses are living things may be the reality. Researchers have discovered giant viruses that contain more genes than cellular life forms, such as bacteria. Some of the genes code for proteins needed to build new viruses, which suggests that these giant viruses may be able — or were once able — to reproduce without a host cell. Some of the strongest evidence that viruses are living things comes from studies of their proteins, which show that viruses and cellular life share a common ancestor in the distant past. Viruses may have once existed as primitive cells, but at some point they lost their cellular nature and became modern viruses that require host cells to reproduce. This idea is not so far-fetched when you consider that many other species require a host to complete their life cycle.
- To be classified as a living thing, most scientists agree that an object must exhibit seven characteristics. Humans share these traits with all other living things.
- All living things:
- Can maintain a more-or-less constant internal environment, which is called .
- Have multiple levels of organization and consist of one or more .
- Can use energy and are capable of .
- Grow and develop.
- Can adaptations to their environment.
- Can detect and respond to environmental stimuli.
- Are capable of , which is the process by which living things give rise to offspring.
- Identify the seven traits that most scientists agree are shared by all living things.
- What is homeostasis? What is one way humans fulfill this criterion of living things?
- Define reproduction and describe two different examples.
- Assume that you found an object that looks like a dead twig. You wonder if it might be a stick insect. How could you ethically determine if it is a living thing?
- Describe viruses and which traits they do and do not share with living things. Do you think viruses should be considered living things? Why or why not?
- People who are biologically unable to reproduce are certainly still considered alive. Discuss why this situation does not invalidate the criteria that living things must be capable of reproduction.
- What are the two types of metabolism described here. What are their differences?
- What are some similarities between the cells of different organisms? If you are not familiar with the specifics of cells, simply describe the similarities you see in the pictures above.
- What are two processes in a living thing that use energy?
- Give an example of a response to stimuli in humans.
- Do unicellular organisms (such as bacteria) have an internal environment that they maintain through homeostasis? Why or why not?
- Evolution occurs through natural ____________ .
- If alien life is found on other planets, do you think the aliens will have cells? Discuss your answer.
- Movement in response to an external chemical is called ___________, while movement towards light is called ___________ .
Characteristics of Life, Ameoba Sisters, 2017.
Homeostasis: Figure 4, by OpenStax College, Biology is used under a CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0) license. Download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/04fdb865-17a1-43d8-bb33-36f821ddd119@7.
- Trap of Dionaea muscipula by che on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/deed.en) license.
- Plants leaning towards the sunlight from Pxhere is used under a CC0 1.0 universal
public domain dedication license (https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/).
- Surprised young cat by Watchduck (a.k.a. Tilman Piesk) on Wikimedia Commons is used under a CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) license.
Ameoba Sisters. (2017, October 26). Characteristics of life. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQPVXrV0GNA&feature=youtu.be
OpenStax. (2016, March 23). Figure 4 The body is able to regulate temperature in response to signals from the nervous system. In OpenStax, Biology (Section 33.3). OpenStax CNX. http://firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, June 14). Adaptation. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Adaptation&oldid=962556016
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, June 21). Auguste Rodin. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Auguste_Rodin&oldid=963668399
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, June 22). Chemotaxis. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Chemotaxis&oldid=963884872
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, June 22). Evolution. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Evolution&oldid=963929880
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, June 20). Phototropism. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Phototropism&oldid=963567791
Wikipedia contributors. (2020, June 22). Virus. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Virus&oldid=963829311
The ability of an organism to maintain constant internal conditions despite external changes.
The smallest unit of life, consisting of at least a membrane, cytoplasm, and genetic material.
The chemical processes that occur in a living organism to sustain life.
Synthesis of larger molecules from smaller ones.
The breakdown of larger molecules into smaller ones.
The production of offspring by sexual or asexual process.
The change in characteristics of a population over several generations.