Properties of Living Things

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you will be able to:

  • Describe characteristics that can be used to determine if something is living.


The Earth viewed from space.
Figure 1 This NASA image is a composite of several satellite-based views of Earth. To make the whole-Earth image, NASA scientists combine observations of different parts of the planet. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

Viewed from space, Earth (Figure 1) offers few clues about the diversity of life forms that reside there. The first forms of life on Earth are thought to have been microorganisms that existed for billions of years before plants and animals appeared. The mammals, birds, and flowers so familiar to us are all relatively recent, originating 130 to 200 million years ago. Humans have inhabited this planet for only the last 2.5 million years, and only in the last 200,000 years have humans started looking like we do today.

Biology is the science that studies life. What exactly is life? This may sound like a silly question with an obvious answer, but it is not 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.

From its earliest beginnings, biology has wrestled with four questions: What are the shared properties that make something “alive”? How do those various living things function? When faced with the remarkable diversity of life, how do we organize the different kinds of organisms so that we can better understand them? And, finally—what biologists ultimately seek to understand—how did this diversity arise and how is it continuing? As new organisms are discovered every day, biologists continue to seek answers to these and other questions.

All groups of living organisms share several key characteristics or functions:

  • Order / Organization
  • Sensitivity / response to stimuli
  • Reproduction
  • Evolution / Adaptation
  • Growth and development
  • Energy processing
  • Homeostasis

When viewed together, these eight characteristics serve to define life. Let’s examine what each of these characteristics means in a scientific sense.

Order / Organization

Organisms, in the most basic form, consist of highly organized structures that are made up 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 components or organelles. Multicellular organisms, which may consist of millions of individual cells, have an advantage over single-celled organisms in that their cells can be specialized to perform specific functions.

A toad
Figure 1 A toad represents a highly organized structure consisting of cells, tissues, organs, and organ systems. (credit: “Ivengo(RUS)”/Wikimedia Commons)

Sensitivity / Response to Stimuli

Organisms respond to diverse stimuli. For example, plants can bend toward a source of light or respond to touch (Figure 2). 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.

A small green plant
Figure 3: The leaves of this sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica) will instantly droop and fold when touched. After a few minutes, the plant returns to its normal state. (credit: Alex Lomas)


Single-celled organisms reproduce by duplicating their DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic material) and then dividing it equally as the cell prepares to divide to form two new cells.

Many multicellular organisms produce specialized reproductive cells that will form new individuals. When reproduction occurs, DNA is passed along to an organism’s offspring. Genes, made up of DNA, are the basic units by which traits are passed from parent to offspring.  DNA, and the information that it encodes in genes, is the reason that offspring will belong to the same species as parents and will have similar characteristics.

Evolution / Adaptation

All living organisms exhibit a “fit” to their environment. Biologists refer to this fit as adaptation and it is a consequence of evolution by natural selection, which operates in every lineage of reproducing organisms. Examples of adaptations are diverse and unique, from heat-resistant Archaea that live in boiling hot springs to the tongue length of a nectar-feeding moth that matches the size of the flower from which it feeds. All adaptations enhance the reproductive potential of the individual exhibiting them, including their ability to survive to reproduce. Adaptations are not constant. As an environment changes, natural selection causes the characteristics of the individuals in a population to track those changes.

Growth and Development

Organisms grow and develop according to specific instructions coded for by their genes. These genes provide instructions that will direct cellular growth and development, ensuring that a species’ young (Figure 4) will grow up to exhibit many of the same characteristics as its parents.

Kittens of various colors.
Figure 4 Although no two look alike, these kittens have inherited genes from both parents and share many of the same characteristics. (credit: Pieter & Renée Lanser)

Even the smallest organisms are complex and require multiple regulatory mechanisms to coordinate internal functions, such as the transport of nutrients, response to stimuli, and coping with environmental stresses. For example, organ systems such as the digestive or circulatory systems perform specific functions like carrying oxygen throughout the body, removing wastes, delivering nutrients to every cell, and cooling the body.

Energy Processing

All organisms (such as the California condor shown in Figure 5) 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 from molecules they take in.


To function properly, cells require appropriate conditions such as proper temperature, pH, and concentrations of diverse chemicals. These conditions may, however, change from one moment to the next. Organisms are able to maintain internal conditions within a narrow range almost constantly, despite environmental changes, through a process called homeostasis or “steady state”—the ability of an organism to maintain constant internal conditions. For example, many organisms regulate their body temperature in a process known as thermoregulation. Organisms that live in cold climates, such as the polar bear (Figure 6), have body structures that help them withstand low temperatures and conserve body heat. In hot climates, organisms have methods (such as perspiration in humans or panting in dogs) that help them to shed excess body heat.

References / Attributions

Unless otherwise noted, images on this page are licensed under CC-BY 4.0 by OpenStax.

Text adapted from: OpenStax, Concepts of Biology. OpenStax CNX. May 18, 2016


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