The Pyramid of Life (Levels of Biological Organization) Help (page 2)

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Aug 30, 2011

The Chemical Level Of Organization

Not specifically mentioned, yet, is the chemical level of biological organization. The chemical level includes the lowest three levels of the Pyramid (Figure 2.2). Specifically, this includes subatomic particles, atoms, and molecules.

The most important of these is the atom. An atom is the simplest form of a chemical element , or primary type of matter. A carbon (C) atom, for instance, is the simplest form of the element carbon. The four most common elements (atoms) found in the human body are carbon (C), oxygen (O), hydrogen (H), and nitrogen (N). [ Study suggestion: Remember the four letters, COHN, as in the slang expression, “Don’t COHN me, Man! Tell me the truth!”]

The subatomic level is the one immediately “below” ( sub -) the entire atom. This level consists of three main types of subatomic particles: protons ( PROH -tahns), neutrons ( NEW -trahns), and electrons ( e-LEK -trahns). Each proton has an electrical charge of +1, while each neutron (as its name suggests) is electrically “neutral” (neither positively nor negatively charged).

Together, a certain number of protons and neutrons make up the nucleus ( NEW -klee- us ) or central “kernel” ( nucle ) of the atom. And orbiting very rapidly around this nucleus are one or more negatively-charged electrons. The carbon atom, for example, contains 6 protons and 6 neutrons within its nucleus. Orbiting around it is a total of 6 electrons. Since the number of positively charged protons in the nucleus always equals the number of negatively charged electrons rapidly orbiting around the nucleus, the net charge of any atom is 0. Thus, the carbon atom, which has a nucleus of charge +6 (from the six protons), and a cloud of electrons with a charge of —6, has a net (overall) charge of 6—6 — 0. [ Study suggestion: As shown in Figure 2.2, visualize the atom as being a hard gumball – the nucleus – surrounded by a sticky cloud of cotton candy, representing the movements of all the electrons orbiting around the nucleus.]

Patterns of Life The Pyramid of Life (Levels of Biological Organization) The Chemical Level Of Organization

Fig. 2.2 The chemical level of biological organization.

Lying just above the atom level is the molecule. A molecule is a combination of two or more atoms held together by chemical bonds. A chemical bond is a linkage created by the sharing or transfer of electrons between the outer surface clouds of atoms. For example, a C–C (carbon–carbon) bond (Figure 2.2) can be visualized as resulting from the linkage of two gumballs. Each gumball (nucleus of a C atom) is surrounded by a sticky (electron) cloud of cotton candy. When the two clouds are smashed together, and then pulled apart slightly, a chemical bond or sticky connection is made between them.

If one or more carbons and other types of atoms are bonded together in a string or ring shape, an organic molecule results. A very simple organic (carbon-containing) molecule is CO 2carbon dioxide (die- OX -eyed). This molecule is the one usually excreted as a waste product by the metabolism of our human body cells.

Our cells typically consume the oxygen (O 2 ) molecule in the process of making energy. Obviously, O 2 is classified as an inorganic molecule, because it does “not” ( in -) contain any C atoms.

Carbon atoms easily bond together with one another, making long C–C chains. Quite often, hydrogen (H) atoms bond to the sides of these carbon atoms. The resulting molecules are called hydrocarbons ( HIGH -droh- kar -buns) – literally, “hydrogen ( hydr ) and carbon” molecules. Most of the organic molecules making up human, animal, and plant bodies include large numbers of hydrocarbons.

When a molecule becomes very “big” ( macro -), it is described as a macromolecule ( MAK -roh- mall -uh-kyewl). One of the most important macromolecules in all living things is the DNA molecule . (Chapter 4 will provide much more information about chemical bonding, DNA, and other types of macromolecules essential for biology.)


Located just above the macromolecules (the top of the chemical level), are the organelles. The word, organelle, literally means “little organ.” Hence, an organelle is a “little organ”-like structure that carries out specific functions within the cell. The cell, like an individual atom, contains a central “kernel” or nucleus. In the case of the cell, however, the nucleus is a rounded, kernellike organelle.

Study suggestion: Picture an oval kernel of corn. The cell nucleus of all humans, plants, and animals holds a large amount of the macromolecule, DNA. Genes (jeans) are particular sections of a DNA molecule. Their chief function is directing protein synthesis (the making of proteins) within the cell.


Practice problems for these concepts can be found at: Patterns of Life Test

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