8 Characteristics of Life in Biology

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  • 0:00 Characteristics of Life
  • 1:19 Characteristics of…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Dominic Corsini
This lesson helps determine whether something is alive. It lists and explains the eight characteristics of life and provides detailed descriptions of each. A brief summary and quiz are also included.

Characteristics of Life

Every fall for the past dozen years, I have begun my biology class in much the same way---with a question. How do you know if something is alive? Now this may seem like a straightforward question, but based on student responses, it isn't nearly that easy to answer. Students often tell me that something is alive if it moves, or breathes, or thinks. Well, these responses are largely all wrong. However, despite the disappointment shown on aspiring biology students' faces when they realize they can't yet distinguish between living and nonliving, there is hope. Fortunately biologists have developed a list of eight characteristics shared by all living organisms. Characteristics are traits or qualities. Here is the list of characteristics shared by living things:

  1. Cellular organization
  2. Reproduction
  3. Metabolism
  4. Homeostasis
  5. Heredity
  6. Response to stimuli
  7. Growth and development
  8. Adaptation through evolution

Now, let's take a moment and elaborate on each of these characteristics.

Characteristics of Life Defined

The first characteristic of life we listed was cellular organization. This simply means that living things are made of cells. Cells are the most basic unit of life. It doesn't matter if those cells are plants, animals, fungi, or bacteria. If something is going to be alive, it must be made of cells.

Second is reproduction. If something is alive it must be capable of reproducing. Multicellular life forms such as humans reproduce sexually, while unicellular life forms like bacteria reproduce asexually. The important thing to remember is that, in either case, living things reproduce.

Next, we come to our third characteristic, metabolism. This concept is a little difficult for some students to grasp. Metabolism is essentially a collection of chemical reactions occurring within the body (or cell). These reactions vary in form and function but promote processes such as protein synthesis, chemical digestion, cell division, or energy transformation. Because metabolism includes reactions that link to other characteristics, it is sometimes grouped with those other characteristics. However, for our purposes, we'll keep metabolism separate.

Our fourth characteristic is homeostasis. Homeostasis is the term used to describe maintaining a stable internal environment. In other words, think about how our bodies maintain a constant body temperature or how blood sugar levels are consistent. If homeostasis is disrupted, and we spike a fever, it's an indication that something is threatening life. The same holds true with blood sugar. When it gets too high or too low, homeostasis is disrupted, and unfortunately, this can be deadly. Therefore, maintaining homeostasis is a vital characteristic of life.

Next, we come to heredity. Heredity means that our genetic information can be passed from one generation to another. If either of your parents has dark eyes, and you also have dark eyes, it's because of heredity.

Response to stimuli is the next characteristic in our countdown. This is simply a reaction to an internal or external force. This is something you've probably witnessed already. Think about a sunflower tilting towards the sun, a dog panting when hot, or trees losing their leaves in the fall when sunlight levels decrease. All living things respond to stimuli in some manner; to see it, all we have to do is look.

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