Chapter 6 Life Processes

Low do we tell the difference between what is alive and what is not alive? If we see a dog running, or a cow chewing cud, or  a  man shouting loudly on the street, we know that these are living beings. What if the dog or the cow or the man were asleep? We would still think that they were alive, but how did we know that? We see them breathing, and we know that they are alive. What about plants? How do we know that they are alive? We see them green, some of us will say. But what about plants that have leaves of colours other than green? They grow over time, so we know that they are alive, some will say. In other words, we tend to think of some sort of movement, either growth-related or not, as common evidence for being alive. But a plant that is not visibly growing is still alive, and some animals can breathe without visible movement. So using visible movement as the defining characteristic of life is not enough. Movements over very small scales will be invisible to the naked eye – movements of molecules, for example. Is this invisible molecular movement necessary for life? If we ask this question to professional biologists, they will say yes. In fact, viruses do not show any molecular movement in them (until they infect some cell), and that is partly whythere is a controversy about whether they are truly alive or not.

Why are molecular movements needed for life? We have seen in earlier classes that living organisms are well-organised structures; they can have tissues, tissues have cells, cells have smaller components in them, and so on. Because of the effects of the environment, this organised, ordered nature of living structures is very likely to keep breaking down over time. If order breaks down, the organism will no longer be alive. So living creatures must keep repairing and maintaining their structures. Since all these structures are made up of molecules, they must move molecules around all the time.

What  are  the  maintenance  processes  in  living  organisms?

Let us explore.

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6.1 What are life processes

The maintenance functions of living organisms must go on even when they are not doing anything particular. Even when we are just sitting in class, even if we are just asleep, this maintenance job has to go on. The processes which together perform  this  maintenance  job  are life processes.

Since these maintenance processes are needed to prevent damage and break-down, energy is needed for them. This energy comes from outside the body of the individual organism. So there must be a process to transfer a source of energy from outside the body of the organism, which we call food, to the inside, a process we commonly call nutrition. If the body size of the organisms is to grow, additional raw material will also be needed from outside. Since life on earth depends on carbon- based molecules, most of these food sources are also carbon-based. Depending on the complexity of these carbon sources, different organisms can then use different kinds of nutritional processes.

The outside sources of energy could be quite varied, since the environment is not under the control of the individual organism. These sources of energy, therefore, need to be broken down or built up in the body, and must be finally converted to a uniform source of energy that can be used for the various molecular movements needed for maintaining living structures, as well as to the kind of molecules the body needs to grow. For this, a series of chemical reactions in the body are necessary. Oxidising-reducing reactions are some of the most common chemical means to break-down molecules. For this, many organisms use oxygen sourced from outside the body. The process of acquiring oxygen from outside the body, and to use it in the process of break-down of food sources for cellular needs, is what we call respiration.

In the case of a single-celled organism, no specific organs for taking in food, exchange of gases or removal of wastes may be needed because the entire surface of the organism is in contact with the environment. But what happens when the body size of the organism increases and the body design becomes more complex? In multi-cellular organisms, all the cells may not be in direct contact with the surrounding environment. Thus, simple diffusion will not meet the requirements of all the cells.

We have seen previously how, in multi-cellular organisms, various body parts have specialised in the functions they perform. We are familiar with the idea of these specialised tissues, and with their organisation in the body of the organism. It is therefore not surprising that the uptake of food and of oxygen will also be the function of specialised tissues. However, this poses a problem, since the food and oxygen are now taken up at one place in the body of the organisms, while all parts of the body need them. This situation creates a need for a transportation system for carrying food and oxygen from one place to another in the body.

When chemical reactions use the carbon source and the oxygen for energy generation,   they create by-products that are not only useless for the cells of the body, but could even be harmful. These waste by- products are therefore needed to be removed from the body and discarded outside by a process called excretion. Again, if the basic rules for body

design in multi-cellular organisms are followed, a specialised tissue for excretion will be developed, which means that the transportation system will need to transport waste away from cells to this excretory tissue.

Let us consider these various processes, so essential to maintain life, one by one.

QUESTIONS

  1. Why is diffusion insufficient to meet the oxygen requirements of multi- cellular organisms like humans?
    Ans:-
    Since diffusion is a very slow process and it will require very large amount of time for oxygen to reach each and every part of the body. That is why diffusion is insufficient to meet the energy requirements of multicellular organisms like humans
     

 2. What criteria do we use to decide whether something is alive?
Ans:-

  •  Shape and size
  • Growth
  • Reproduction
  • Metabolism
  • Cellular structure
  • Consciousness
  • Movements
  • Co- ordination
  • Self regulations
  • Definite life cycle
  • Variation
  • Death
     
  1. What are outside raw materials used for by an organism?
    Ans:-
    Raw materials used by an organism are as follows:
    1. Food for providing energy.
    2. Oxygen for breakdown of food to obtain energy.
    3. Water for proper digestion of food and other functions inside the body
     
  2. What processes would you consider essential for maintaining life?
    Ans:-
    The maintenance function of living organisms must go on even when they are not doing anything particular. The various processes essential for maintaining life are nutrition, respiration, transportation, excretion, control and coordination. In absence of any one of these, the life become, difficult.
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6.2 Nutrition

When we walk or ride a bicycle, we are using up energy. Even when we are not doing any apparent activity, energy is needed to maintain a state of order in our body. We also need materials from outside in order to grow, develop, synthesise protein and other substances needed in the body. This source of energy and materials is the food we eat.

How do living things get their food?

The general requirement for energy and materials is common in all organisms, but it is fulfilled in different ways. Some organisms use simple food material obtained from inorganic sources in the form of carbon dioxide and water. These organisms, the autotrophs, include green plants and some bacteria. Other organisms utilise complex substances. These complex substances have to be broken down into simpler ones before they can be used for the upkeep and growth of the body. To achieve this, organisms use bio-catalysts called enzymes. Thus, the heterotrophs survival depends directly or indirectly on autotrophs. Heterotrophic organisms include animals and fungi.

 

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 6.2.1 Autotrophic Nutrition

Carbon and energy requirements of the autotrophic organism are fulfilled by photosynthesis. It is the process by which autotrophs take in substances from the outside and convert them into stored forms of energy. This material is taken in the form of carbon dioxide and water which is converted into carbohydrates in the presence of sunlight and chlorophyll. Carbohydrates are utilised for providing energy to the plant. We will study how this takes place in the next section. The carbohydrates which are not used immediately are stored in the form of starch, which serves as the internal energy reserve to be used as and when required by the plant. A somewhat similar situation is seen in us where some of the energy derived from the food we eat is stored in our body in the form of glycogen.

bio

Let us now see what actually happens during the process of photosynthesis. The following events occur during this process –

  • Absorption of light energy by chlorophyll.
  • Conversion of light energy to chemical energy and splitting of water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen
  • Reduction of carbon dioxide to carbohydrates

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Figure 6.1 Cross-section of a leaf

These steps need not take place one after the other immediately. For example, desert plants take up carbon dioxide at night and prepare an intermediate which is acted upon by the energy absorbed by the chlorophyll during the day.

Let us see how each of the components of the above reaction are necessary for photosynthesis. 

If you carefully observe a cross-section of a leaf under the microscope (shown in Fig. 6.1), you will notice that some cells contain green dots. These green dots are cell organelles called chloroplasts which contain chlorophyll. Let us do an activity which demonstrates that chlorophyll is essential for photosynthesis.

Activity 6.1

  • Take a potted plant with variegated leaves – for example, money plant or crotons.
  • Keep the plant in a dark room for three days so that all the starch gets used up.
  • Now keep the plant in sunlight for about six hours.
  • Pluck a leaf from the plant. Mark the green areas in it and trace them on a sheet of paper.
  • Dip the leaf in boiling water for a few minutes.
  • After this, immerse it in a beaker containing alcohol.
  • Carefully place the above beaker in a water-bath and heat till the alcohol begins to boil.
  • What happens to the colour of the leaf? What is the colour of the solution?
  • Now dip the leaf in a dilute solution of iodine for a few minutes.
  • Take out the leaf and rinse off the iodine solution.
  • Observe the colour of the leaf and compare this with the tracing of the leaf done in the beginning (Fig. 6.2).
  • What can you conclude about the presence of starch in various areas of the leaf?

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Figure  6.2 Variegated leaf (a) before and (b) after starch test

Now, let us study how the plant obtains carbon dioxide. In Class IX, we had talked about stomata (Fig. 6.3) which are tiny pores present on the surface of the leaves. Massive amounts of gaseous exchange takes place in the leaves through these pores for the purpose of photosynthesis. But it is important to note here that exchange of gases occurs across the surface of stems, roots and leaves as well. Since large amounts of water can also be lost through these stomata, the plant closes these pores when it does not need carbon dioxide for photosynthesis. The opening and closing of the pore is a function of the guard cells. The guard cells swell when water flows into them, causing the stomatal pore to open. Similarly the pore closes if the guard cells shrink.

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Figure 6.3 (a) Open and (b) closed stomatal pore

Activity 6.2

  • Take two healthy potted plants which are nearly the same size.
  • Keep them in a dark room for three days.
  • Now place each plant on separate glass plates. Place a watch-glass containing potassium hydroxide by the side of one of the plants. The potassium hydroxide is used to absorb carbon dioxide.
  • Cover both plants with separate bell-jars as shown in Fig. 6.4.
  • Use vaseline to seal the bottom of the jars to the glass plates so that the set-up is air-tight.
  • Keep the plants in sunlight for about two hours.
  • Pluck a leaf from each plant and check for the presence of starch as in the above activity.
  • Do both the leaves show the presence of the same amount of starch?
  • What can you conclude from this activity?

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Figure 6.4 Experimental set-up (a) with potassium hydroxide (b) without potassium hydroxide

Based on the two activities performed above, can we design an experiment to demonstrate that sunlight is essential for photosynthesis?

So far, we have talked about how autotrophs meet their energy requirements. But they also need other raw materials for building their body. Water used in photosynthesis is taken up from the soil by the roots in terrestrial plants. Other materials like nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and magnesium are taken up from the soil. Nitrogen is an essential element used in the synthesis of proteins and other compounds. This is taken up in the form of inorganic nitrates or nitrites. Or it is taken up as organic compounds which have been prepared by bacteria from atmospheric nitrogen.

 

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6.2.2 Heterotrophic Nutrition

Each organism is adapted to its environment. The form of nutrition differs depending on the type and availability of food material as well as how it is obtained by the organism. For example, whether the food source is stationary (such as grass) or mobile (such as a deer), would allow for differences in how the food is accessed and what is the nutritive apparatus used by a cow and a lion. There is a range of strategies by which the food is taken in and used by the organism. Some organisms break-down the food material outside the body and then absorb it. Examples are fungi like bread moulds, yeast and mushrooms. Others take in whole material and break it down inside their bodies. What can be taken in and broken down depends on the body design and functioning. Some other organisms derive nutrition from plants or animals without killing them. This parasitic nutritive strategy is used by a wide variety of organisms like cuscuta (amar-bel), ticks, lice, leeches and tape-worms.

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