Basic Biology, Anatomy, and Physiology

The Basic Structural and Functional Unit of Life: The Cell

What distinguishes a living organism from an inanimate object? A living organism conducts self-sustaining biological processes. A cell is the smallest and most basic form of life.

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The cell theory incorporates three principles:

Cells are the most basic building units of life. All living things are composed of cells. New cells are made from preexisting cells, which divide in two. Who you are has been determined because of two cells that came together inside your mother’s womb. The two cells containing all of your genetic information (DNA) united to begin making new life. Cells divided and differentiated into other cells with specific roles that led to the formation of the body’s numerous body organs, systems, blood, blood vessels, bone, tissue, and skin. As an adult, you are made up of trillions of cells. Each of your individual cells is a compact and efficient form of life—self-sufficient, yet interdependent upon the other cells within your body to supply its needs.

Independent single-celled organisms must conduct all the basic processes of life. The single-celled organism must take in nutrients (energy capture), excrete wastes, detect and respond to its environment, move, breathe, grow, and reproduce. Even a one-celled organism must be organized to perform these essential processes. All cells are organized from the atomic level to all its larger forms. Oxygen and hydrogen atoms combine to make the molecule water (H2O). Molecules bond together to make bigger macromolecules. The carbon atom is often referred to as the backbone of life because it can readily bond with four other elements to form long chains and more complex macromolecules. Four macromolecules—carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids—make up all of the structural and functional units of cells.

Although we defined the cell as the “most basic” unit of life, it is structurally and functionally complex (Figure 2.2 “The Cell Structure”). A cell can be thought of as a mini-organism consisting of tiny organs called organelles. The organelles are structural and functional units constructed from several macromolecules bonded together. A typical animal cell contains the following organelles: the nucleus (which houses the genetic material DNA), mitochondria (which generate energy), ribosomes (which produce protein), the endoplasmic reticulum (which is a packaging and transport facility), and the golgi apparatus (which distributes macromolecules). In addition, animal cells contain little digestive pouches, called lysosomes and peroxisomes, which break down macromolecules and destroy foreign invaders. All of the organelles are anchored in the cell’s cytoplasm via a cytoskeleton. The cell’s organelles are isolated from the surrounding environment by a plasma membrane.

Figure 2.2 The Cell Structure


The cell is structurally and functionally complex.

Tissues, Organs, Organ Systems, and Organisms

Unicellular (single-celled) organisms can function independently, but the cells of multicellular organisms are dependent upon each other and are organized into five different levels in order to coordinate their specific functions and carry out all of life’s biological processes (see Figure 2.3 “Organization of Life”.

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Cells are the basic structural and functional unit of all life. Examples include red blood cells and nerve cells. There are hundreds of types of cells. All cells in a person contain the same genetic information in DNA. However, each cell only expresses the genetic codes that relate to the cell’s specific structure and function.Organs are a group of tissues arranged in a specific manner to support a common physiological function. Examples include the brain, liver, and heart.An organism is the complete living system capable of conducting all of life’s biological processes.

Figure 2.3 Organization of Life

“Organization Levels of Human Body” by Laia Martinez / CC BY-SA 4.0

Table 2.1 The Eleven Organ Systems in the Human Body and Their Major Functions

Organ SystemOrgan ComponentsMajor Function
Cardiovascularheart, blood/lymph vessels, blood, lymphTransport nutrients and waste products
Digestivemouth, esophagus, stomach, intestinesDigestion and absorption
Endocrineall glands (thyroid, ovaries, pancreas)Produce and release hormones
Immunewhite blood cells, lymphatic tissue, marrowDefend against foreign invaders
Integumentaryskin, nails, hair, sweat glandsProtective, body temperature regulation
Muscularskeletal, smooth, and cardiac muscleBody movement
Nervousbrain, spinal cord, nervesInterprets and responds to stimuli
Reproductivegonads, genitalsReproduction and sexual characteristics
Respiratorylungs, nose, mouth, throat, tracheaGas exchange
Skeletalbones, tendons, ligaments, jointsStructure and support
Urinarykidneys, bladder, uretersWaste excretion, water balance