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Engineering LibreTexts

1.3: Biological Organization

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  • All living things are made of cells; the cell itself is the smallest fundamental unit of structure and function in living organisms. In most organisms, these cells contain organelles, which provide specific functions for the cell. Living organisms have the following properties: all are highly organized, all require energy for maintenance and growth, and all grow over time and respond to their environment. All organisms adapt to the environment and all ultimately reproduce contributing genes to the next generation. Some organisms consist of a single cell and others are multicellular. Organisms are individual living entities. For example, each tree in a forest is an organism.

    All the individuals of a species living within a specific area are collectively called a population. Populations fluctuate based on a number of factors: seasonal and yearly changes in the environment, natural disasters such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions, and competition for resources between and within species. A community is the sum of populations inhabiting a particular area. For instance, all of the trees, 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, nonliving 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.

    Life in an ecosystem is often about competition for limited resources, a characteristic of the process of natural selection. Competition in communities (all living things within specific habitats) is observed both within species and among different species. The resources for which organisms compete include organic material from living or previously living organisms, sunlight, and mineral nutrients, which provide the energy for living processes and the matter to make up organisms’ physical structures. Other critical factors influencing community dynamics are the components of its physical and geographic environment: a habitat’s latitude, amount of rainfall, topography (elevation), and available species. These are all important environmental variables that determine which organisms can exist within a particular area. Ecosystems can be small, such as the tidal pools found near the rocky shores of many oceans, or large, such as the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    There are three broad categories of ecosystems based on their general environment: freshwater, ocean water (marine), and terrestrial. Within these broad categories are individual ecosystem types based on the organisms present and the type of environmental habitat. Ocean ecosystems are the most common, comprising 75 percent of the Earth's surface. The shallow ocean ecosystems include extremely biodiverse coral reef ecosystems, and the deep ocean surface is known for its large numbers of plankton and krill (small crustaceans) that support it. These two environments are especially important to aerobic respirators worldwide as the phytoplankton perform 40 percent of all photosynthesis on Earth. Although not as diverse as the other two, deep ocean ecosystems contain a wide variety of marine organisms. Such ecosystems exist even at the bottom of the ocean where light is unable to penetrate through the water. Freshwater ecosystems are the rarest, occurring on only 1.8 percent of the Earth's surface. Lakes, rivers, streams, and springs comprise these systems; they are quite diverse, and they support a variety of fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, phytoplankton, fungi, and bacteria.

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    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): (a) A tidal pool ecosystem in Matinicus Island, Maine, is a small ecosystem, while (b) the Amazon rainforest in Brazil is a large ecosystem. (credit a: modification of work by Jim Kuhn; credit b: modification of work by Ivan Mlinaric)

    Terrestrial ecosystems, also known for their diversity, are grouped into large categories called biomes, such as tropical rainforests, savannas, deserts, coniferous forests, deciduous forests, and tundra. Grouping these ecosystems into just a few biome categories obscures the great diversity of the individual ecosystems within them. For example, there is great variation in desert vegetation: the saguaro cacti and other plant life in the Sonoran Desert, in the United States, are relatively abundant compared to the desolate rocky desert of Boa Vista, an island off the coast of Western Africa.

    All living things require energy in one form or another. It is important to understand how organisms acquire energy and how that energy is passed from one organism to another through food webs. Food webs illustrate how energy flows directionally through ecosystems, including how efficiently organisms acquire it, use it, and how much remains for use by other organisms of the food web. The flow of energy and matter through the ecosystems influences the abundance and distribution of organisms within them.

    Ecosystems are complex with many interacting parts. They are routinely exposed to various disturbances: changes in the environment that affect their compositions, such as yearly variations in rainfall and temperature. Many disturbances are a result of natural processes. For example, when lightning causes a forest fire and destroys part of a forest ecosystem, the ground is eventually populated with grasses, followed by bushes and shrubs, and later mature trees: thus, the forest is restored to its former state. This process is so universal that ecologists have given it a name—succession. The impact of environmental disturbances caused by human activities is now as significant as the changes wrought by natural processes. Human agricultural practices, air pollution, acid rain, global deforestation, overfishing, oil spills, and illegal dumping on land and into the ocean all have impacts on ecosystems.

    We rely on ecosystem services. Earth’s natural systems provide ecosystem services required for our survival such as: air and water purification, climate regulation, and plant pollination. We have degraded nature’s ability to provide these services by depleting resources, destroying habitats, and generating pollution. The benefits people obtain from ecosystems include: nutrient cycling, soil formation, and primary production. Another important service of natural ecosystems is provisioning like food production, production of wood, fibers and fuel. Ecosystems are responsible for climate regulation, flood regulation together with disease regulation. Finally ecosystems provide cultural and esthetic services. As humans we benefit from observing natural habitats, recreation in waters and mountains. Nature is a source of inspiration for poets and writers. It is a source of aesthetic, religious and other nonmaterial benefits. Studying ecosystem structure in its original state is the only way we can make anthropogenic (man-made) systems like agricultural fields, reservoirs, fracking operations, and dammed rivers work for human benefit with minimal impact on our and other organisms’ health.