How 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.
The maintenance functions of living organisms must go on even when they are not doing anything particular. Even when we are just sitting in Science 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.
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.
We have discussed nutrition in organisms in the last section. The food material taken in during the process of nutrition is used in cells to provide energy for various life processes. Diverse organisms do this in different ways – some use oxygen to break-down glucose completely into carbon dioxide and water, some use other pathways that do not involve oxygen (Fig. 6.8). In all cases, the first step is the break-down of glucose, a six-carbon molecule, into a three-carbon molecule called pyruvate.
We have seen in previous sections that blood transports food, oxygen and waste materials in our bodies. In Class IX, we learnt about blood being a fluid connective tissue. Blood consists of a fluid medium called plasma in which the cells are suspended. Plasma transports food, carbon dioxide and nitrogenous wastes in dissolved form. Oxygen is carried by the red blood cells. Many other substances like salts, are also transported by the blood. We thus need a pumping organ to push blood around the body, a network of tubes to reach all the tissues and a system in place to ensure that this network can be repaired if damaged.
We have already discussed how organisms get rid of gaseous wastes generated during photosynthesis or respiration. Other metabolic activities generate nitrogenous materials which need to be removed. The biological process involved in the removal of these harmful metabolic wastes from the body is called excretion. Different organisms use varied strategies to do this. Many unicellular organisms remove these wastes by simple diffusion from the body surface into the surrounding water. As we have seen in other processes, complex multi-cellular organisms use specialised organs to perform the same function.