Life is a unique, complex organisation of molecules expressing itself through chemical reactions (metabolism) which lead to growth, development, responsiveness, adaptation and reproduction. Hence, "the object by itself exhibiting the growth, development, death, consciousness, reproduction etc. is designated as living being."

A. Characteristics of Living Beings

All the living beings share certain unique and basic characteristics which set them apart from non-living objects. These characteristics are listed below :         

1. Growth                   

2. Reproduction         

3. Metabolism           

4. Cellular structure  

5. Consciousness

1. Growth:

Increase in mass and increase in number of cells are twin characters of growth. Growth refers to irreversible increase in mass or overall size of a tissue, an organism or its parts.

Growth is the result of difference between anabolism (building up reactions) and catabolism (breakdown reactions).

Growth occurs when anabolism or synthetic processes exceeds catabolism.

Degrowth or negative growth will occur when catabolism exceeds anabolism. It will decrease the mass of body.

Unicellular organisms also grow by cell division. In majority of higher animals and plants, growth and reproduction are mutually exclusive events, but in unicelled organisms like Amoeba, reproduction is synonymous with growth, i.e., increase in number of cells.

Non-living objects also grow if we take increase in body mass as a criterion of growth. But in these objects extrinsic growth is present i.e. increase in the mass of body from outside e.g., mountains, boulders and sand mounds. Growth, therefore, cannot be taken as a defining property of living organisms.

2. Reproduction:

Reproduction is the formation of new individuals of similar kind. It is, however, required for survival of the population as it compensates for the loss of life due to death.

Reproduction is of two types, asexual and sexual. Asexual reproduction is uniparental multiplication that occurs through binary fission, multiple fission, spore formation, fragmentation and vegetative multiplication.

Fungi multiply by asexual spores, yeast and Hydra show budding, Planaria exhibits true regeneration. Fungi, filamentous algae, protonema of mosses easily multiplies by fragmentation. But, when we notice single-celled organisms like bacteria, unicellular alga and Amoeba, we are not clear about the usage of these two terms -growth and reproduction, i.e., increase in number of cells.

Hence, reproduction also cannot be an all inclusive property of living organisms. Still, no non-living object is capable of reproducing or replicating by itself. Further, there are some organisms which do not reproduce at all, e.g., worker bees, mules etc.

3. Metabolism:

Life is a never ending flow of energy and materials.

The energy are required by all living cells for building and functioning of their living matter.

Metabolism is the sum total of all chemical reactions occurring in an organism due to specific interactions amongst different types of molecules within the interior of cells.

Metabolism involves exchange of matter and energy between an organism and its environment and transformation of matter and energy within an organism.

Despite vast differences occurring in structure and functioning of cells in different organisms, metabolic reactions are unusually similar.

Metabolic reactions can be demonstrated outside the body in cell free systems.

An isolated metabolic reaction(s) in a test-tube is neither living nor non-living. Hence, while metabolism is a defining feature of all living organisms without exception , isolated metabolic reactions in-vitro are not living things but surely living reactions.

An isolated metabolic reaction(s) in a test-tube is neither living nor non-living. Hence, while metabolism is a defining feature of all living organisms without exception , isolated metabolic reactions in-vitro are not living things but surely living reactions.

4. Cellular structure:

Body of all living organisms consists of cells and their products. Hence, cellular organisation of the body is the defining feature of life forms.

5. Consciousness:

All living beings, plants and animals, are aware of their environment. All organisms sense their surroundings and respond to sudden or smooth changes in it.

All organisms from prokaryota to eukaryota can sense and respond.

Humans also have "self-consciousness" hence, this becomes the defining property of living beings.

It is most obvious and technically complicated feature of all living organisms.

The foregoing discussion, nevertheless concludes that living beings are organized, self-replicating, evolving and self-regulating interactive systems, with consciousness at the head of all.

A question may arise whether a man lying in coma on the life support systems is living or non-living? The answer lies in the quantitative presence of consciousness in the living being in that particular state. Infact, the person in coma has lost the requisite quantity of consciousness to exhibit the features of living being, but still exhibits life. If the requisite consciousness is restored, the person may again start to be as living being or die otherwise.

Other characteristics of living beings are adaptation, life span, homeostasis, healing and repair, movement and variation.


From a current estimation, approximately 1.7 million species have been scientifically named and classified. These include nearly 1.2 million animals and over 0.5 million species of plants.

Amongst animals, insects form the largest group, i.e., over 10,25,000 species. It is estimated that majority of species diversity is confined to tropical rain forests and huge diversity exist in under water reef formations in tropical oceans.

Existing living species are the outcome of about 3.5 billion years of evolutionary process on this earth. Nearly 15,000 new organisms are discovered every year.

A clearer understanding of this huge variety of organisms can be studied by dividing these into smaller groups or sub-groups (categories) and each group or sub-group comprising of organisms with more or less similar characters.

Method of placing organisms into groups or sub-groups depending upon extent of similarities and differences is called classification.

The division of organisms into different groups follows certain rules, that is why the term called taxonomy is used for classification of organisms following certain rules or principles.

 Need for classification

There are millions of plants and animals varying greatly in their form, structure and complexity.

It is impossible to study all of them individually. To make the study of organisms possible and easier, scientists have divided organisms into different ranks or categories on the basis of similarities and differences.

Classification is just like systematically arranged library where we can easily find out the required book, in the same way, if the organisms are arranged according to a system, it makes their study easy.

Some important needs are

It is essential to understand the inter-relationship among different groups of organisms.

It serves as a base for the development of other biological sciences like biogeography.

Various applied biology fields also depend upon exact identification and classification.

Taxonomy and Systematics

Taxonomy: The branch of science dealing with the study of principles and procedures of classification is called taxonomy. The term taxonomy was coined by A.P. de Candolle. Linnaeus is considered as Father of Taxonomy. Santapau is considered as Father of Indian Taxonomy. The fundamental elements of taxonomy are as follows :

  • Characterisation and identification : It is the determination of the similarities of an organism with an already known organism, based upon specific characters.
  • Nomenclature: It is the determination of correct name of an organism according to established universal rules.
  • Classification: It is grouping of organisms into convenient categories on the basis of easily observable characters.
  • The classical taxonomy is based on observable morphological characters, however the modern taxonomy deals with several characters for the classification of organisms like

 (a)     External and internal structure alongwith the structure of cell.

 (b)    Development process.

 (c)    Ecological information of organisms

Systematics : The word "systematics" is derived from Latin word systema which means systematic arrangement of organisms. It was first used by Carolus Linnaeus. According to him, "systematics is the discipline of biology which deals with the kind and diversity of all organisms and the existing relationships amongst them."

Generally, the terms such as classification, systematics and taxonomy are used interchangeably but some taxonomists like Simpson (1961) relate them with a separate field. He defined systematics as

"The study of diversity of organisms and all their comparative and evolutionary relationships based on comparative anatomy, comparative ecology, comparative physiology and comparative biochemistry."

The main uses of systematics are as given below :

(i)      It helps in providing knowledge of great diversity of animals and plants. It provides information regarding evolution which took place among plants and animals by knowing the distinction, relationship, habitat and habits. It thus, gives a vivid picture of entire organic diversity.

(ii)    It helps in the identification of fossils which gives useful information about the phylogeny of organisms.

(iii)   Newly discovered organisms can be identified through systematics. well as the specimens

Concept Builder

1. The reasons for large scale biodiversity amongst living beings are :

    1. Adaptations in organisms to diverse habitat in order to reduce competition.
    2. Change in genetic constitution.
    3. Isolation

2. Ontogeny is the life history of organisms. Phylogeny is the evolutionary history of organisms.

3. Systematics is taxonomy alongwith phylogeny.

4. Classical or old or descriptive systematics is based upon morphological characters. According to it basic unit of classification is species. Pioneer workers are Aristotle and linnaeus.

5. New systematics / Biosystematics / Neosystematics is based upon all characters" i.e., morphological, cytological, ecological, biochemical, genetical etc. The term was coined by Julian Huxley. Basic unit of classification is population or sub-species for the new systematics.

6. Founder of taxonomy / Father of biology / ZoologyAristotle, Father of Botany Theophrastus, Father of Indian Botany/Indian herbaria -William Rouxburgh.

7. About 5-30 million species of living organisms exist today. Taxonomically or scientifically known number of species is 1.7 million or 13 percent.

Representing global biodiversity: proportionate number of species of major taxa of plants, invertebrates and vertebrates