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What distinguishes a living organism from a nonliving thing?

What do all living organisms have in common? What distinguishes a living organism from a nonliving thing?

The living organisms present on Earth today are a very diverse group of beings. Think about the features of humans, elephants, spiders, birds, bacteria, fish, and trees. All of these are living things, but they are very different in appearance, shape, size, behavior, and life cycle. Despite their outward differences, all living organisms share a basic set of similar characteristics and features.

Our first readings will help you identify what common features distinguish biotic (living) from abiotic (nonliving) things. How is it that you know a bird is alive but fire is not? Why do we say a tree is a living thing, but not water? It’s trickier than it sounds.

Further complicating the definition of life, living things are made of nonliving things: the atoms and molecules that make up their bodies. The basic building blocks of living organisms are chemical substances: subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules.

How can we get life from something that isn’t alive? To answer this question and to understand how life functions, we must learn some foundational chemistry.

Next week we will learn how cells (the smallest units of structure and function in biology) rely on atoms, molecules, and molecular forces in order to be fully functional.

During the latter weeks of the semester, we will move on to examine larger and more complex layers of organization. As we move to these layers, we begin to see distinct differences between living organisms and nonliving things. Each of the remaining layers of organization is present in living organisms but absent from nonliving things.

The study of living organisms, whose characteristics we described above, forms the science of biology.

So what exactly is science?

Science deals with testable knowledge about physical phenomena in the universe. The goal of science is to understand how the universe works, and that includes living organisms. To gain knowledge about nature and physical phenomena, scientists use a particular approach called “scientific inquiry” or the “scientific method.” Frequently, science requires a researcher first to make observations, then create a hypothesis, followed usually by a scientific experiment. The results are then interpreted and conclusions are drawn. Afterwards, researchers often return to their work and begin asking further questions.

This week, we will also learn about the scientific method and how it can help us solve problems and recognize what scientific research is and what it is not.

Furthermore, you will be introduced to UMUC policies on academic integrity.

You will participate in a class discussion related to topics in biology.

You will practice laboratory skills.

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