Wonders of biology

Biology is marvelous! When you stop to look around, you realize that we are surrounded by wonders of all kinds. Here are some of our favorites, and we’re just getting started.

DNA – or deoxyribonucleic acid – contains the instructions and genetic material that define living organisms. It turns out that life is made up of the same four building blocks, or nucleotides. And when those nucleotides come together in a helix shape, they contain all the genetic information needed for the diversity of life.

The cell factory: The living cell is organized like a factory, with distinct divisions of labor for its workers, the organelles. This is how the cell creates energy and does its work.

The Great Oxygenation Event. How did some organisms begin to breathe oxygen? Go back 2 to 3 billion years, and bacteria in the oceans began to convert sunlight into chemical energy, giving off oxygen in the process. And voilà: photosynthesis and the possibility of complex life!

The fungus is not the most obvious of nature’s heroes. Nonetheless, it has helped give us antibiotics and the enzymes that help break down all kinds of organic materials. And, did you know that a giant Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon is the world’s largest known organism? It covers more than 9.6 square km (3.7 square miles).

The water bear – or tardigrade – is 1 mm (0.04 inch) of extreme adaptability. These tiny animals live in habitats that range from sand to sea. They can survive for years in extreme cold or dry conditions while appearing completely lifeless.

Symbiosis describes two or more unlike biological organisms living together. The organisms can have positive or negative impacts for each other, but for many life forms, this is the only way to survive. For legumes, bacteria grow in their roots to enable them to absorb atmospheric nitrogen necessary for growth, while the symbiotic bacteria get better living conditions.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a freezer built to last. On a Norwegian island in the Arctic, a treasure chest of over 890,000 precious seed samples is stored deep inside a mountain, protecting the biodiversity of plant life.

The blue whale is the largest animal that has ever existed. Up to 30 m (100 ft) long and up to 180 ton (400,000 lb) in weight these giants travel the oceans alone, in pairs or in pods. When pressed, they can reach speeds of over 40 km/h (25 mph), so it’s generally best to get out of the way.

So many wonders left to discover

  • • We have explored less than 5% of the ocean floor. The ocean makes up 70% of the Earth. That means that we don’t know what most of our own planet looks like.
  • • Most large caves with entrances on Earth’s surface have already been discovered. But, there are untold thousands of caves without surface entrances (and probably still some on the surface we just haven’t found yet). These could harbor ecosystems entirely cut off from the rest of the world.
  • • We can reasonably guess that there are 1 trillion species on Earth, including microbes.
  • • Overlooked biodiversity: Even organisms we come across every day should be studied, as in the case of the common beetle. It was recently discovered to be two genetically distinct (though physically similar) species.
  • • It is likely that there are between 30-50 trillion bacterial cells in a human being.
  • • Lazarus species are creatures once thought to be extinct but have been found alive. Numerous species keep being rediscovered.
  • • Humans can only see visible light, a tiny fraction of the entire electromagnetic spectrum. So much of the universe is hidden to us.

That was just a few observations. It’s impossible to say exactly what’s out there – we simply don’t know. But that is all the more reason for us to find out.