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Glossary of Biology
List of definitions of terms and concepts commonly used in the study of biology
The process by which organisms diversify rapidly from an ancestral species into a multitude of new forms, particularly when a change in the environment makes new resources available, creates new challenges, or opens new niches.
An organic compound derived from adenine that functions as the major source of energy for chemical reactions inside living cells. It is found in all forms of life and is often referred to as the "molecular currency" of intracellular energy transfer.
An organism capable of producing complex organic compounds from simple substances present in its surroundings, generally by using energy from sunlight (as in photosynthesis) or from inorganic chemical reactions (as in chemosynthesis). Autotrophs do not need to consume another living organism in order to obtain energy or organic carbon, as opposed to heterotrophs.
A formal system of classifying species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, although they can be based on words from other languages.
The study of the distribution of species and ecosystems in geographic space and through geological time. Organisms and biological communities often vary in a regular fashion along geographic gradients of latitude, elevation, isolation and habitat area.
Organic matter derived from living or recently living organisms. Biomass can be used as a source of energy and it most often refers to plants or plant-based materials which are not used for food or feed, and are specifically called lignocellulosic biomass.
Any very large ecological area on the Earth's surface containing fauna and flora (animals and plants) adapting to their environment. Biomes are often defined by abiotic factors such as climate, topographical relief, geology, soils, and water resources.
The pursuit of answers to medical questions. These investigations lead to discoveries, which in turn lead to the development of new preventions, therapies, and cures for problems in human and veterinary health. Biomedical research generally takes two forms: basic science and applied research.
Biotechnology is the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, or "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use" (UN Convention on Biological Diversity).
A body fluid that circulates in humans and other vertebrate animals and is generally responsible for delivering necessary substances such as oxygen and nutrients between the cells and tissues of the body and transporting metabolic waste products away from those same cells and tissues.
The basic structural and functional unit of all living organisms, and the smallest functional unit of life. A cell may exist as an independent, self-replicating unit (as in the case of unicellular organisms), or in cooperation with other cells, each of which may be specialized for carrying out particular functions within a larger multicellular organism. Cells consist of cytoplasm enclosed within a cell membrane and sometimes a cell wall, and serve the fundamental purpose of separating the controlled environment in which biochemical processes take place from the outside world. Most cells are visible only under a microscope.
The ordered series of events which take place in a cell leading to duplication of its genetic material and ultimately the division of the cytoplasm and organelles to produce two or more daughter cells. These events can be broadly divided into phases of growth and division, each of which can vary in duration and complexity depending on the tissue or organism to which the cell belongs. Cell cycles are essential processes in all unicellular and multicellular organisms.
A framework for understanding the movement of genetic information between information-carrying biopolymers within biological systems. Popularly (though simplistically) stated as "DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein", the principle attempts to capture the notion that the transfer of genetic information only naturally occurs between certain classes of molecules and in certain directions.
A type of highly specialized organelle in the cells of plants and algae, the main role of which is to conduct photosynthesis, by which the photosynthetic pigment chlorophyll captures the energy from sunlight and converts and stores it in the molecules ATP and NADPH while freeing oxygen from water.
A type of lipid molecule that is biosynthesized by all animal cells because it is an essential structural component of animal cell membranes, essential for maintaining both membrane structural integrity and fluidity.
A series of chemical reactions used by all aerobic organisms to generate energy through the oxidation of acetyl-CoA derived from carbohydrates, fats, and proteins into carbon dioxide and chemical energy in the form of guanosine triphosphate (GTP). In addition, the cycle provides the chemical precursors for certain amino acids as well as the reducing agent NADH that is used in numerous other biochemical reactions. Its central importance to many biochemical pathways suggests that it was one of the earliest established components of cellular metabolism and may have originated abiogenically.
A scientific theory in immunology that explains the functions of cells (lymphocytes) of the immune system in response to specific antigens invading the body. The theory has become the widely accepted model for how the immune system responds to infection and how certain types of B and T lymphocytes are selected for destruction of specific antigens.
The process of producing individual organisms or molecules with identical or virtually identical DNA, either naturally or artificially. Many organisms, such as bacteria, insects, and plants, are capable of naturally producing clones through asexual reproduction. In biotechnology, cloning refers to the artificial creation of copies of cells, DNA fragments, or other biomolecules by various laboratory techniques.
In the context of virus capsid, may refer colloquially to the defined geometric structure of a capsid, or the membrane of an endosome containing an intact virion. The coat of a virus is used in descriptions for the general public. Related slang: uncoating.
The use of comparative methods to study the similarities and differences between two or more biological organisms (e.g. two organisms from the same time period but different taxa, or two organisms from the same taxon but different times in evolutionary history). The side-by-side comparison of morphological or molecular characteristics of different organisms is the basis from which biologists infer the organisms' genetic relatedness and their natural histories. It is a fundamental tool in many biological disciplines, including anatomy, physiology, paleontology, and phylogenetics.
An evolutionary process by which species of different lineages independently develop similar characteristics, often to the point that the species appear to be more closely related than they actually are.
The crossover of some property, usually heat or some component, between two fluids flowing in opposite directions to each other. The phenomenon occurs naturally but is also frequently mimicked in industry and engineering.
One of the four main nitrogenous bases found in both DNA and RNA, along with adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil (in RNA); it is a pyrimidine derivative, with a heterocyclic aromatic ring and two substituents attached (an amine group at position 4 and a keto group at position 2).
A complex, dynamic network of interlinking protein filaments that extends from the cell nucleus to the cell membrane and which is present in the cytoplasm of all cells, including bacteria and archaea. The cytoskeletal systems of different organisms are composed of similar proteins. In eukaryotes, the cytoskeletal matrix is a dynamic structure composed of three main proteins, which are capable of rapid growth or disassembly dependent on the cell's requirements.
Deciduous means "falling off at maturity" or "tending to fall off", and it is typically used in botany in order to refer to trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally (most commonly during autumn) and to the shedding of other plant structures such as petals after flowering or fruits when ripe.
A process in which proteins or nucleic acids lose the quaternary, tertiary, and secondary structure which is present in their native state, when exposed to some external stress or chemical compound such as a strong acid or base, a concentrated inorganic salt, or an organic solvent.
The microbially facilitated process of nitratereduction that ultimately produces molecular nitrogen (N2) through a series of intermediate gaseous nitrogen oxide products. It is performed by a large group of heterotrophic facultative anaerobic bacteria and is a fundamental component of the nitrogen cycle.
A nucleic acidpolymer that serves as the fundamental hereditary material in all living organisms. Each DNA molecule is composed of long sequences of nucleotides, each of which includes one of four nitrogenous bases - adenine (abbreviated A), cytosine (C), guanine (G), and thymine (T) - attached to a sugar-phosphate complex which acts as a "backbone" for the long-chain polymer. DNA most commonly occurs in "double-stranded" form, i.e. as a pair of nucleotide polymers bound together by complementarybase pairing.
The process of reversing the charge across a cell membrane (such as that of a neuron), thereby causing an action potential. In depolarization, the inside of the membrane, which is normally negatively charged, becomes positive and the outside becomes negative. This is brought about by positively charged sodium ions rapidly passing into the axon.
The branch of biology that studies the processes by which living organisms grow and develop over time. The field may also encompass the study of reproduction, regeneration, metamorphosis, and the growth and differentiation of stem cells in mature tissues.
Any particular abnormal condition that negatively affects the structure or function of all or part of a living organism and that is not the result of any immediate external injury. Diseases are medical conditions that are often identifiable by specific signs and symptoms. They may be caused by external factors such as infectious pathogens or by internal dysfunctions such as immune deficiency or senescence.
The chemical duplication or copying of a DNA molecule; the process of producing two identical copies from one original DNA molecule, in which the double helix is unwound and each strand acts as a template for the next strand. Complementary nucleotide bases are matched to synthesize the new partner strands.
Any substance that causes a change in an organism's physiology or psychology when consumed. Drugs may be naturally occurring or artificially produced, and consumption may occur in a number of different ways. Drugs are typically distinguished from substances that provide nutritional support such as food.
The existence of a morphological distinction between organisms of the same species, such that individuals of that species occur in one of two distinct forms which differ in one or more characteristics, such as colour, size, shape, or any other phenotypic trait. Dimorphism based on sex - e.g. male vs. female - is common in sexually reproducing organisms such as plants and animals.
The efficiency with which energy is transferred from one trophic level to the next. It is determined by a combination of efficiencies relating to organismic resource acquisition and assimilation in an ecosystem.
An organism in which internal physiological sources of heat are of relatively small or quite negligible importance in controlling body temperature compared to ambient sources of heat. Ectotherms generally experience changes in body temperature that closely match changes in the temperature of their environment; colloquially, these organisms are often referred to as "cold-blooded". Contrast endotherm.
A gradient of electrochemical potential, usually for an ion that can move across a membrane. The gradient consists of two parts: the electrical potential and the difference in chemical concentration across the membrane.
Any chemical entity that accepts electrons transferred to it from another chemical entity. It is an oxidizing agent that, by virtue of its accepting electrons, is itself reduced in the process. Contrast electron donor.
Any of various molecules that are capable of accepting one or two electrons from one molecule and donating them to another in the process of electron transport. As the electrons are transferred from one electron carrier to another, their energy level decreases, and energy is released.
A chemical entity that donates electrons to another chemical entity. It is a reducing agent that, by virtue of its giving up its electrons, is itself oxidized in the process. Contrast electron acceptor.
A type of microscope that uses a beam of electrons to create an image of a sample or specimen. Electron microscopes are capable of much higher magnifications and have greater resolving power than conventional light microscopes, allowing them to see much smaller objects in finer detail.
The branch of biology that studies the development of gametes (sex cells), fertilization, and development of embryos and fetuses. Additionally, embryology involves the study of congenital disorders that occur before birth.
Any species which is very likely to become extinct in the near future, either worldwide or in a particular area. Such species may be threatened by factors such as habitat loss, hunting, disease, and climate change, and most have a declining population or a very limited range.
The ecological state of an organism or species being unique to a defined geographic location, such as an island, nation, country, habitat type, or other defined zone. Organisms are said to be endemic to a place if they are indigenous to it and found nowhere else.
An organism that is capable of maintaining a consistent, metabolically favorable body temperature, largely by the recycling of heat released by its internal physiological functions, instead of by relying on ambient sources of heat. Endotherms are generally able to maintain a stable body temperature despite changes in the temperature of their environment; colloquially, these organisms are often referred to as "warm-blooded". Contrast ectotherm.
A protein that acts as a biological catalyst by accelerating chemical reactions. Metabolic pathways depend upon enzymes to catalyze their individual steps, and almost all metabolic processes require enzyme catalysis in order to occur at rates fast enough to sustain life.
The study and analysis of the patterns, causes, and effects of health and disease conditions in defined populations. It is the cornerstone of public health, and shapes policy decisions and evidence-based practice by identifying risk factors for disease and targets for preventive healthcare.
A sub-field of genetics that studies cellular and physiological phenotypic trait variations caused by external or environmental factors which affect how cells expressgenes, as opposed to those caused by changes in the DNA sequence.
A nutrient required for normal physiological function which cannot be synthesized by a particular organism, either at all or in sufficient quantities, and which therefore must be obtained from external sources such as food. In humans, a set of nine amino acids, two fatty acids, thirteen vitamins, and fifteen minerals are considered essential nutrients.
The scientific study of non-human animal behaviour (i.e. excluding human behaviour) and usually with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions, and viewing behaviour as an evolutionarily adaptive trait.
A type of organism consisting of cells which have a nucleus enclosed within a distinct nuclear membrane, unlike prokaryotes. Eukaryotes include all organisms except the bacteria and archaea (i.e. all plants, animals, fungi, and protists are eukaryotes).
The subfield of biology that studies evolution and the evolutionary processes that produced the diversity of life on Earth from a hypothesized single common ancestor. These processes include the descent of species and the origin of new species.
It is exhibited when the rate of change of the value of a mathematical function is proportional to the function's current value, resulting in its value at any time being an exponential function of time.
The termination of the existence of a particular kind of organism or a particular taxon, often a species, as a result of the death of the last individual of the taxon (though the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point, rendering the taxon functionally extinct).
Any segment of DNA that contains the information necessary to produce a functional RNA and/or protein product in a controlled manner. Genes are often considered the fundamental molecular units of heredity. The transmission of genes from a parent cell or organism to its offspring is the basis of the inheritance of phenotypic traits.
Any living organism that harbors another living organism (known as a "guest" or symbiont), whether the guest is parasitic, mutualistic, or commensalist in its interactions with the host. The guest typically receives shelter and nourishment from the host.
Any of a class of glycoprotein molecules produced by plasma cells (white blood cells) which act as a critical part of the immune response by specifically recognizing and binding to particular antigens, such as bacteria or viruses, and aiding in their destruction. They are a major component of the group of immune defense molecules collectively called antibodies.
An anabolic peptide hormone produced in the pancreas which helps to regulate the metabolism of carbohydrates, fats, and protein by promoting the absorption of glucose from the blood into liver, fat, and skeletal muscle cells. Abnormal insulin activity is the cause of diabetes mellitus.
A group of signaling proteins made and released by host cells in response to the presence of several pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, or tumor cells. In a typical scenario, a virus-infected cell will release interferons causing nearby cells to heighten their antiviral defenses.
(French: Système international d'unités; abbreviated SI) The modern standardized form of the metric system of units and measurements, and the system of measurement formally adopted for use in the physical and natural sciences.
Any species living outside its native geographic range, and which has arrived there either by accidental or deliberate human activity. Such human-caused introduction of species to foreign environments is distinguished from biological colonization, by which species spread to new areas through "natural" means (i.e. without the involvement of humans).
A type of chemical bond involving the complete transfer of valence electron(s) between two atoms. Such bonds typically occur between elements characterized as metals and nonmetals, and generate two oppositely charged ions: the metal loses electrons to become a positively charged cation, and the nonmetal accepts those electrons to become a negatively charged anion.
A molecule with the same chemical formula as another molecule, but with a different chemical structure. That is, isomers contain the same number of atoms of each element, but have different arrangements of their atoms.
Refers to two solutions having the same osmotic pressure across a semipermeable membrane. This state allows for the free movement of water across the membrane without changing the concentration of solutes on either side.
A distinct juvenile form many animals undergo before metamorphosis into adults. Animals with indirect development, such as insects, amphibians, or cnidarians, typically have a larval phase of their life cycle.
The principle, originally formulated by Gregor Mendel, stating that when two or more characteristics are inherited, individual hereditary factors assort independently during gamete production, giving different traits an equal opportunity of occurring together.
The characteristic or collection of characteristics that distinguishes physical entities that undergo biological processes (e.g. living organisms) from that those do not (e.g. non-living, inanimate matter), either because such processes have ceased or because they were not present in the first place. What constitutes "life" is notoriously difficult to define, and there is currently no consensus definition, though some popular criteria are that living things are composed of cells, have a life cycle, undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, adapt to environments, respond to stimuli, reproduce, and evolve. Biology is the scientific study of life and of living organisms.
A substance that is insoluble in water and soluble in alcohol, ether, and chloroform. Lipids are an important component of living cells. Together with carbohydrates and proteins, lipids are the main constituents of plant and animal cells. Cholesterol and triglycerides are lipids.
A biochemical assembly that contains both proteins and lipids, bound to the proteins, which allow fats to move through the water inside and outside cells. The proteins serve to emulsify the lipid molecules.
Mitosis and cytokinesis together define the mitotic (M) phase of an animal cell cycle - the division of the mother cell into two daughter cells, genetically identical to each other and to their parent cell.
Evolution on a scale of separated gene pools. Macroevolutionary studies focus on change that occurs at or above the level of species, in contrast with microevolution, which refers to smaller evolutionary changes (typically described as changes in allele frequencies) within a species or population.
Nutrients needed in large amounts which provide calories or energy. Nutrients are substances needed for growth, metabolism, and for other body functions. There are three basic types of macronutrients: fats, proteins, and carbohydrates.
A kind of swallowing cell, which means it functions by literally swallowing up other particles or smaller cells. Macrophages engulf and digest debris (such as dead cells) and foreign particles through the process of phagocytosis, so macrophages act like scavengers.
The study of organisms in the ocean or other marine bodies of water. Given that in biology many phyla, families and genera have some species that live in the sea and others that live on land, marine biology classifies species based on the environment rather than on taxonomy.
A specialized type of cell division in which a dividing parent cell proceeds through two consecutive divisions, ultimately producing four genetically unique daughter cells in each of which the chromosome number is half of that in the original parent cell. This process is exclusive to cells of the sex organs in sexually reproducingeukaryotes, where it serves the purpose of generating gametes such as eggs, sperm, or spores.
When a nerve or muscle cell is at "rest", its membrane potential is called the resting membrane potential. In a typical neuron, this is about -70 millivolts (mV). The minus sign indicates that the inside of the cell is negative with respect to the surrounding extracellular fluid.
The third phase of mitosis, in which duplicated genetic material carried in the nucleus of a parent cell is separated into two identical daughter cells. During metaphase, the cell's chromosomes align themselves in the middle of the cell through a type of cellular "tug of war".
The study of microscopic organisms, such as bacteria, viruses, archaea, fungi and protozoa. This discipline includes fundamental research on the biochemistry, physiology, cell biology, ecology, evolution and clinical aspects of microorganisms, including the host response to these agents.
The smallest particle in a chemical element or compound that has the chemical properties of that element or compound. Molecules are made up of atoms that are held together by chemical bonds. These bonds form as a result of the sharing or exchange of electrons among atoms.
A neuron whose cell body is situated in the motor cortex, brain stem, or the spinal cord, and whose axon (fiber) projects to the spinal cord or outside of the spinal cord to directly or indirectly control effector organs, mainly muscles and glands.
The branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi, including their genetic and biochemical properties, their taxonomy and their use to humans as a source for tinder, medicine, food, and entheogens, as well as their dangers, such as poisoning or infection.
A process in nature in which organisms possessing certain genotypic characteristics that make them better adjusted to an environment tend to survive, reproduce, increase in number or frequency, and therefore, are able to transmit and perpetuate their essential genotypic qualities to succeeding generations.
The role and position an organism or taxon fills within its environment; how it meets its needs for food and shelter, how it survives, and how it reproduces. A species' niche includes all of its interactions with the biotic and abiotic factors of its environment.
An organic compound which serves as the fundamental monomer used in the construction of nucleic acid polymers, such as DNA and RNA, both of which are essential biomolecules within all living organisms.
The spontaneous net movement of solvent molecules through a semipermeable membrane into a region of higher solute concentration, in the direction that tends to equalize the solute concentrations on the two sides.
The study of the history of life on Earth as reflected in the fossil record. Fossils are the remains or traces of organisms that lived in the geological past and have been preserved in the Earth's crust.
The study of parasites, their hosts, and the relationship between them. As a biological discipline, the scope of parasitology is not determined by the organism or environment in question, but by their way of life.
In the broadest sense, anything that can produce disease, though the term is most commonly used to refer specifically to an infectious microscopic organism such as a virus, bacterium, protozoan, or another microbial agent which causes disease for a host organism by invading the host's tissues.
A medical specialty that is concerned with the diagnosis of disease based on the laboratory analysis of bodily fluids such as blood and urine, as well as tissues, using the tools of chemistry, clinical microbiology, hematology, and molecular pathology.
A numeric scale used to specify the acidity or basicity (alkalinity) of an aqueous solution. It is roughly the negative of the logarithm to base 10 of the concentration, measured in units of moles per liter, of hydrogen ions.
A secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are analogous to hormones acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of receiving individuals.
The process by which nearly all plants and some algae and bacteria convert the energy of sunlight into chemical energy, which is used to synthesize carbohydrates such as sugars from carbon dioxide and water; these carbohydrates are stored as food, and the energy within them is later released to fuel metabolic activities. Organisms that perform photosynthesis are therefore autotrophs. Photosynthesis supplies the majority of the energy necessary for life on Earth.
A technique used in molecular biology to amplify a single copy or a few copies of a segment of DNA across several orders of magnitude, generating thousands to millions of copies of a particular DNA sequence.
A subfield of ecology that deals with the dynamics of species populations and how these populations interact with the environment. It is the study of how the population sizes of species change over time and space.
The process of renewal, restoration, and growth that makes genomes, cells, organisms, and ecosystems resilient to natural fluctuations or events that cause disturbance or damage. For example, many organisms are capable of regenerating tissues and even entire body parts if they are lost or destroyed.
The biological process by which one or more new individual organisms (known as offspring) is produced from an existing parent organism. Reproduction is a defining characteristic of all life, and every individual organism exists as the result of a reproductive event. There are two general methods by which reproduction takes place: sexual or asexual.
1. Generally, lacking motility or means of self-locomotion; immobile or incapable of movement. Sessile organisms may move via external forces such as wind or water currents but are more often permanently fixed to a solid object such as a rock, soil, or another organism.
2. In botany, the property of a plant or plant part that is attached directly by its base to an object or another plant part, i.e. without an intervening stem, stalk, or petiole.
The basic unit of biological classification and the narrowest of the canonical taxonomic ranks, as well as a unit of biodiversity. Species are traditionally distinguished on the basis of reproductive compatibility, though achieving a satisfactory definition that is universally applicable to all life has proven difficult, since many organisms classified as distinct "species" are capable of interbreeding with different (albeit closely related) species, generating hybrids.
A type of undifferentiated or partially undifferentiated cell that is capable of differentiating into other types of specialized cells and also capable of dividing to produce more of the same type of stem cell. Stem cells are the earliest type of cell in a cell lineage.
Any close and long-term interaction between two different biological organisms, regardless of the nature or degree of the effect on either organism. Examples include mutualism, commensalism, and parasitism.
The scientific study of biodiversity. It is concerned with the discovering and naming of new species of organisms (nomenclature) and arranging these taxa into classification schemes (taxonomy). A large part of modern systematics is concerned with understanding the evolutionary relationships between various taxa (phylogenetics) using methods of comparative biology (e.g. physiology, behavior, biochemistry, morphology, genetics) and statistical analysis.