Biosemiotics: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

All living things have the ability to communicate with each other using a variety of signs and signals. In this lesson, learn all about biosemiotics, which is the study of all the ways that organisms communicate with each other.

What is Biosemiotics?

Every day, you are communicating with other people. Sometimes, this is a conscious choice, such as when you decide to text your friend or wave to a stranger on the street. However, you are also sending messages even when you don't realize that's what you are doing. Your body language, tone of voice, and even scent are sending unconscious messages to others who you come in contact with all the time.

You are also regularly receiving and interpreting messages from other people, and even animals, as well. For example, if you see a dog standing on the sidewalk growling at you, you are likely to interpret this behavior as threatening and back away from the dog, right?

People today have all kinds of ways of sending information from one person to another.
A woman with a cell phone

It turns out that people (and dogs) are not the only animals that are adept at sending and receiving messages like this. In fact, all organisms do it, although the methods they use may be different. The study of how organisms use various signs and signals to transmit information to one another is called biosemiotics.

The ability to send and receive messages is one of the primary characteristics that distinguishes living things from non-living things. Non-living things like rocks don't have the ability to transmit information, but even very simple organisms like bacteria and other single-celled organisms can communicate with each other. Individual cells within the bodies of larger animals (like people) can also communicate with each other. In fact, this type of signaling between cells is necessary for the survival of the organism.

Biosemiotics on the Cellular Level

On a small scale, individual cells, whether they are single-celled organisms or just a small part of a larger organism, communicate with each other using a variety of chemical messengers known as cell signaling molecules. These signaling molecules are critical for coordinating the actions of the various systems of your body.

For example, to move even a single muscle, one or more of your nerve cells must carry an impulse to the muscle cells. Then, when the impulse reaches the muscle, cell signaling molecules are released from the end of the nerve cell and cross a short distance to bind with the membrane of the muscle cell. This triggers a whole cascade of events that results in your muscle cells contracting. Without these important cell signaling molecules, the nerve cells would not be able to communicate with the muscle cells and you could not move at all! This is just one small example of the type of communication that is continuously going on between cells.

Biosemiotics on the Organism Level

On a larger scale, entire organisms communicate with each other using all kinds of signs and signals. These signals can be auditory, such as speaking or making other sounds to communicate, or visual. Many organisms also use scent to communicate!

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