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Emergent Properties: Definition & Examples

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Instructor: Erika Steele

Erika has taught college Biology, Microbiology, and Environmental Science. She has a PhD in Science Education.

Living organisms, from the simplest bacteria to human beings, display levels of organization. Complete this lesson to find out how emergent properties arise at each level - from simple atoms to the biosphere. After the lesson, there will be a quiz to test what you have learned.

Emergent Properties at the Molecular Level

Living things have different levels of organization. Smaller parts combine to make increasingly complex systems. An emergent property is a characteristic an entity gains when it becomes part of a bigger system. Emergent properties help living organisms better adapt to their environments and increase their chances of survival.

Stating that you are just a collection of well-organized atoms may make you seem like a person at a party who sucks the life and beauty out of the room, but at the lowest level of organization, the molecular level, all living beings are made of atoms that have joined together to form large biological molecules called macromolecules. Atoms such as carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen found in molecules gain new or emergent properties when they bond together to make the proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids that are macromolecules. For example, when carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen combine in a certain way, lipids are formed. Lipids are capable of forming cell membranes that separate living cells from the environment. Membrane formation is an emergent property not found in the molecules that make them, and without cell membranes, life could not exist.

Let's take a look at the other roles that emergent properties play at different levels.

Emergent Properties at the Cellular Level

Macromolecules join together to form cells, life's simplest units. Each macromolecule in a cell plays a vital role in determining how the cell functions, adapts, and survives. Nucleic acids join together to make the chromosomes with the genes that determine an organism's characteristics, including the organism's ability to adapt to its environment.

Emergent Properties at the Tissue Level

In multicellular organisms, cells are arranged into tissues or groups of similar cells that work together to perform a particular function. For example, a single epithelial cell cannot form a protective layer. However, multiple epithelial cells can form layers and other structures that provide protection to various organs. Organisms have genes that allow them to form cells that form tissues to allow them to survive in the environment for which they have evolved adaptations.

The four types of tissues found in animal and human cells perform different functions:

  1. Epithelial tissue forms the linings of organs
  2. Connective tissue includes cartilage, collagen, and fats and form protective padding
  3. Nervous tissue is comprised of neurons and allows the body to receive signals from the environment
  4. Muscle tissue is comprised of cells capable of generating motion such as pumping blood or moving the body

Emergent Properties at the Organ Level

Different types of tissues are arranged to make body parts that perform specialized functions in an organism's body called organs. For example, your stomach contains all four types of tissue. The properties of an organism's organs depend on the properties that emerged as a result of interactions at lower levels. For example, the DNA in an organism's chromosomes determines how cells form tissues and how tissues form organs.

Organs make the organ systems found in complex multicellular organisms, like human beings. Organs such as the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestines, and large intestines are parts of the digestive system, which breaks down food to provide energy for your body to function. The stomach cannot digest food without the enzymes and digestive fluids the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas make. The interactions between the organs in a system are actually controlled at the molecular level.

Emergent Properties at the Organism Level

Organ systems join together to create an organism. An organism's characteristics depend on the genetics of the organism. Humans lack the genes to allow them to make organs to breathe in water because we did not evolve underwater. Other organisms do have the genes to allow them to adapt to an underwater environment.

Emergent Properties at the Population Level

Organisms of the same species are arranged into populations. The characteristics that emerge in a population depend upon the species' genetics and its environment. The ability to communicate and work together for the survival of the species is an emergent property of populations. Humans work together to modify the environment to make our survival easier. Though we lack the organs to survive in space or underwater, we have figured out ways to survive in those places for short periods of time. The interactions of two or more populations result in the formation of communities.

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