A word familiar to all fans of science fiction, mutation refers to any sudden change in DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid, the genetic blueprint for an organism—that creates a change in an organism's appearance, behavior, or health. Unlike in the sci-fi movies, however, scientists typically use the word mutant as an adjective rather than as a noun, as, for example, in the phrase "a mutant strain." Mutation is a phenomenon significant to many aspects of life on Earth and is one of the principal means by which evolutionary change takes place.
The term reproduction encompasses the entire variety of means by which plants and animals produce offspring. Reproductive processes fall into two broad groupings: sexual and asexual, the latter being the means by which bacteria and algae reproduce.
Sexual reproduction is one of the two major ways, along with asexual reproduction, that plants and animals create offspring and thus propagate the species. Critical to sexual reproduction is the process of fertilization, whereby the male and female sex cells fuse, or bond.
One of the greatest dramas in the world of living things is that which takes place in pregnancy and birth. Pregnancy forms a bond between mother and offspring that, in humans at least, lasts throughout life.
Among the dominant concepts of the modern world in general, and biology in particular, few are as powerful—or as misunderstood—as evolution. Even the name is something of a misnomer, since it almost implies some sort of striving to reach a goal, as though the "purpose" of evolution were to produce the most intelligent species, human beings.
Paleontology is the study of life-forms from the distant past, as revealed primarily through the record of fossils left on and in the earth. It is a subdiscipline of both the biological and the earth sciences, one that brings to bear the techniques of geologic study and several areas of biology, including botany and zoology.
Taxonomy is the area of the biological sciences devoted to the identification, naming, and classification of living things according to apparent common characteristics. It is far from a simple subject, particularly owing to many disputes over the rules for classifying plants and animals.
One of the challenges that faces a student of the biological sciences is the seemingly endless array of unfamiliar terms that one must learn. It is a relief to come across a relatively familiar one, such as species.
One of the defining characteristics of a species is its reproductive isolation: the fact that among animals and plants that reproduce sexually, it is impossible for members of two different species to mate and produce fertile offspring. Speciation is the process whereby a single species develops over time into two distinct, reproductively isolated species.
Disease is a term for any condition that impairs the normal functioning of an organism or body. Although plants and animals also contract diseases, by far the most significant disease-related areas of interest are those conditions that afflict human beings.
In contrast to infectious, or extrinsic, diseases, noninfectious, or intrinsic, conditions are neither contagious nor communicable. They arise from inside the body as a result of hereditary conditions or other causes, such as dietary deficiencies.
The history of the human species, it has been said, is the history of infectious disease. Over the centuries, humans have been exposed to a vast amount and array of contagious conditions, including the Black Death and other forms of plague, typhoid fever, cholera, malaria, influenza, and the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Immunity is the condition of being able to resist a specific disease, particularly through means that prevent the growth and development of disease-carrying organisms or counteract their effects. It is regulated by the immune system, a network of organs, glands, and tissues that protects the body from foreign substances.
The immune system is a network of organs, glands, and tissues that protects the body from foreign substances. These substances include bacteria, viruses, and other infection-causing parasites and pathogens.
When people hear the word parasite, one of the first ideas or images that probably comes to mind is that of disease. Though many parasites do carry diseases, including some extremely deadly ones, "disease-carrying" is not necessarily a defining characteristic of a parasite.
Humans may hold dominance over most other life-forms on Earth, but a few varieties of organism have long held mastery over us. Ironically, these life-forms, including bacteria and viruses, are so small that they cannot be seen, and this, in fact, has contributed to their disproportionate influence in human history.