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Introduction to the
The Biosphere
Virtuall y all of life on ear th exists i n the
biosphere, that area between several
kilometers above the surface of the ear th to
several kilometers below the sur face.
When was the last time you traveled anywhere? Maybe you traveled to a big city,
such as Seattle or even New York city. Or, perhaps you went to one of the great
outdoor areas of the West, such as the Frank Church Wilderness Area or the Hells
Canyon Recreation Area. Chances are that if you traveled somewhere like that, at
some point in your travels, the thought struck you that wow, this place is pretty big!
Well, lets take a moment and put this thought into perspective. Big cities and
wilderness areas are of course just a small part of our planet. Think for a second
about the planet on which we live, the planet Earth. Our planet is 12,750 km in
diameter pretty good size it seems but we, and all other life forms, only inhabit a
small portion of the planet, called the biosphere. The biosphere is the area on Earth
several kilometers above the surface of the earth to several kilometers below the
surface of the earth. If we estimate this 10 kilometers in either direction, that gives
us somewhere around 5 billion cubic kilometers of space where we and the other
organisms on our planet can potentially live. Now were getting somewhere thats
pretty big, thats a lot of space to move around in, right? It should even make that
big city or wilderness area seem kind of small by comparison.
Putti ng It Into Perspective
If the universe were scaled down to the size
of the sur face of the ear th, our solar system
would equal the size of a single bacterial
Our bi osphere wouldn t even register as a
single atom on the planets surface!
photo byHans Paerl
ASM MicrobeLibrary
Well, lets take a moment and put our biosphere in perspective as well. As it turns out, when you
consider the amount of space that life occupies on a cosmic scale, that amount is relatively tiny.
Primarily this is because there just isnt much inhabitable space out there in, well, outer space. Our
planet, for example, is the only planet in our solar system that supports life as far as we know. How
big is our solar system? Well, its diameter is about 100,000 times the diameter of the earth. This
means that, size-wise, the earths biosphere represents around one-billionth the volume of the solar
system. Relatively speaking, if the solar system were the size of a human being, all of its life would
exist within the volume of a single nucleotide in a single molecule of DNA or RNA.
Hmm, feeling like maybe that big city or wilderness area is shrinking even more? Lets keep going.
Our solar system is part of the Milky Way galaxy, which in turn is one of many galaxies that, in part,
make up the universe. We certainly dont have the technology to see into other parts of the universe,
let alone to see very effectively into other parts of our own galaxy. However, much evidence so far
points to the fact that, by and large, the universe itself is mostly devoid of life. How big is the
universe? Some estimates put it at nearly 30 billion light-years across about 30 trillion times the
size of our solar system. So where does this leave us? Well, to put this cosmic disparity into
fathomable numbers, lets say that the universe is scaled down so that it is represented by the entire
surface of the earth. Proportionately, then, our solar system would be akin to a single bacterial cell
somewhere on the planets surface. Where is our biosphere in this picture? Our biosphere, and so
the total amount of space in which life occurs, would register several orders of magnitude smaller
than a single atom in that single bacterial cell on the entire surface of the earth. Now thatis small!
Earth: A Planetary Island of Life
A small sampling
of life
on earth!
photo byHans Paerl
ASM MicrobeLibrary
Feeling a little isolated? Think about it here we are, floating around space on our
little island called Earth, surrounded by billions and billions of kilometers of a lifeless
Well, cheer up, heres the good news: our planet is the right size, the right distance
from our sun, and moves at the right speed to maintain a gaseous atmosphere of
nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide. Whats more, our planet holds water lots of
it on its surface, as well as carbon, sulfur, phosphorous and many other important
elements in its rocks and soils. In other words, the conditions here are perfect for
life as we know it. And life is certainly what we have. In fact, the earths biosphere is
one riotous party of life thats been going on for almost 4 billion years! If youre
going to be stuck on a planetary island, this is definitely the one to be stuck on. You
share your planets tiny sliver of life-supporting biosphere with over 100 million other
types of organisms that come in all different sizes, shapes, colors, sounds and
smells. Whats more, these and millions of other types of organisms have been
interacting and evolving on our planet for that entire stretch of 4 billion years.
Since youre taking Biology 116, you not only get to be a part of the party, you also
get to learn about it how it works, what happened in the past, and even what it
might be like in the future.
Organisms and the Environment
So j ust what s goi ng on
around here, anyway?
Let s fi nd out!
As you move through this course, you will be learning about the life with which you
share Earths biosphere. You will learn how life is classified so that we can make
sense of the millions of different types of organisms that inhabit our planet today
and have inhabited it in the past. You will also see how the different biological
regions of our planet are classified, from the broad, encompassing regions referred
to as biomes, to smaller, more stringently defined areas such as ecosystems and
habitats. Finally, you will learn how the interactions of Organisms and the
Environment have shaped the history of life, and will shape the future of life on
The history of life is an amazing story, both because of its complexity, and because
of its universal novelty. So, fasten your seatbelts, sit back, and enjoy the ride!