Chemistry for Biology

Learning Outcomes

Course Outcomes for this section: 

  • Describe the structure of biologically-important molecules (carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, nucleic acids, water) and how their structure leads to their function.

Living things are highly organized and structured, following a hierarchy that can be examined on a scale from small to large. The examination of the smallest parts involves a knowledge of chemistry. We can put the levels of organization of living things in order from smallest to largest.

  • The atom is the smallest and most fundamental unit of matter. It consists of a nucleus surrounded by electrons.
  • Atoms form molecules. A molecule is a chemical structure consisting of at least two atoms held together by one or more chemical bonds. Many molecules that are biologically important are macromolecules, large molecules that are typically formed by polymerization (a polymer is a large molecule that is made by combining smaller units called monomers, which are simpler than macromolecules).

These first 2 levels (or 3, depending on how you categorize macromolecules) are typically studied in chemistry or biochemistry courses. However, a working knowledge of atoms and molecules is required to understand how these small pieces work to make larger, living organisms.

  • Some cells contain aggregates of macromolecules surrounded by membranes; these are called organelles. Organelles are small structures that exist within cells.
  • All living things are made of cells; the cell itself is the smallest fundamental unit of structure and function in living organisms.
  • In larger multicellular organisms, cells combine to make tissues, which are groups of similar cells carrying out similar or related functions.
  • Organs are collections of tissues grouped together performing a common function. An organ system is a higher level of organization that consists of functionally related organs.
  • Mammals have many organ systems. For instance, the circulatory system transports blood through the body and to and from the lungs; it includes organs such as the heart and blood vessels.
  • Organisms are individual living entities. For example, each tree in a forest is an organism. Single-celled prokaryotes and single-celled eukaryotes are also considered organisms and are typically referred to as microorganisms.

Once we move beyond one single organism, we have reached the study of ecology. You’ll look at these topics in BI213.

  • All the individuals of a species living within a specific area are collectively called a population. For example, a forest may include many pine trees. All of these pine trees represent the population of pine trees in this forest. Different populations may live in the same specific area. For example, the forest with the pine trees includes populations of flowering plants and also insects and microbial populations.
  • A community is the sum of populations inhabiting a particular area. For instance, all of the trees, flowers, 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, non-living 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.
A flow chart shows the hierarchy of living organisms. From smallest to largest, this hierarchy includes: (1) Organelles, such as nuclei, that exist inside cells. (2) Cells, such as a red blood cell. (3) Tissues, such as human skin tissue. (4) Organs such as the stomach make up the human digestive system, an example of an organ system. (5) Organisms, populations, and communities. In a forest, each pine tree is an organism. Together, all the pine trees make up a population. All the plant and animal species in the forest comprise a community. (6) Ecosystems: the coastal ecosystem in the Southeastern United States includes living organisms and the environment in which they live. (7) The biosphere: encompasses all the ecosystems on Earth.
Figure 1 The biological levels of organization of living things are shown. From a single organelle to the entire biosphere, living organisms are parts of a highly structured hierarchy. (credit “organelles”: modification of work by Umberto Salvagnin; credit “cells”: modification of work by Bruce Wetzel, Harry Schaefer/ National Cancer Institute; credit “tissues”: modification of work by Kilbad; Fama Clamosa; Mikael Häggström; credit “organs”: modification of work by Mariana Ruiz Villareal; credit “organisms”: modification of work by “Crystal”/Flickr; credit “ecosystems”: modification of work by US Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters; credit “biosphere”: modification of work by NASA)

References

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 25, 2017 https://cnx.org/contents/GFy_h8cu@10.99:gNLp76vu@13/Themes-and-Concepts-of-Biology

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