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Biosphere

Biosphere

The biosphere is the space on or near Earth's surface that contains and supports living organisms. It is subdivided into the lithosphere, atmosphere, and hydrosphere. The lithosphere is Earth's surrounding layer, composed of solids such as soil and rock; it is about 80 to 100 kilometers (50 to 60 miles) thick. The atmosphere is the surrounding thin layer of gas. The hydrosphere refers to liquid environments such as lakes and oceans that lie between the lithosphere and atmosphere. The biosphere's creation and continuous existence results from chemical, biological, and physical processes.

Requirements for life

For organisms to live, certain environmental conditions (such as proper temperature and moisture) must exist, and the organisms must be supplied with energy and nutrients (food). All the animal and mineral nutrients necessary for life are contained within Earth's biosphere. Nutrients contained in dead organisms or waste products of living cells are transformed back into compounds that other organisms can reuse as food. This recycling of nutrients is necessary because there is no source of food outside the biosphere.

Words to Know

Decomposition: The breakdown of complex moleculesmolecules of which dead organisms are composedinto simple nutrients that can be reutilized by living organisms.

Energy: Power that can be used to perform work, such as solar energy.

Global warming: Warming of the atmosphere that results from an increase in the concentration of gases that store heat, such as carbon dioxide.

Nutrient: Molecules that organisms obtain from their environment; they are used for growth, energy, and various other cellular processes.

Nutrient cycle: The cycling of biologically important elements from one molecular form to another and back to the original form.

Photosynthesis: Process in which plants capture light energy from the Sun and use it to convert carbon dioxide and water into oxygen and organic molecules.

Respiration: Chemical reaction between organic molecules and oxygen that produces carbon dioxide, water, and energy.

Energy is needed for the functions that organisms perform, such as growth, movement, waste removal, and reproduction. It is the only requirement for life that is supplied from a source outside the biosphere. This energy is received from the Sun. Plants capture sunlight and use it to convert carbon dioxide and water into organic molecules, or food, in a process called photosynthesis. Plants and some microorganisms are the only organisms that can produce their own food. Other organisms, including humans, rely on plants for their energy needs.

The major elements or chemical building blocks that make up all living organisms are carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Organisms are able to acquire these elements only if they occur in usable

chemical forms as nutrients. In a process called the nutrient cycle, the elements are transformed from one chemical form to another and then back to the original form. For example, carbon dioxide is removed from the air by plants and incorporated into organic compounds (such as carbohydrates) by photosynthesis. Carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere when plants and animals break down organic molecules (a process known as respiration) and when microorganisms break down wastes and tissue from dead organisms (a process known as decomposition).

Evolution of the biosphere

During Earth's long history, life-forms have drastically altered the chemical composition of the biosphere. At the same time, the biosphere's chemical composition has influenced which life-forms inhabit Earth. In the past, the rate at which nutrients were transformed from one chemical form to another did not always equal their transformation back to their original form. This has resulted in a change in the relative concentrations of chemicals such as carbon dioxide and oxygen in the biosphere. The decrease in carbon dioxide and increase in atmospheric oxygen that occurred over time was due to photosynthesis occurring at a faster rate than respiration. The carbon that was present in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide now lies in fossil fuel deposits and limestone rock.

Scientists believe that the increase in atmospheric oxygen concentration influenced the evolution of life. It was not until oxygen reached high concentrations such as exist on Earth today that multicellular organisms like ourselves could have evolved. We require high oxygen concentrations to accommodate our high respiration rates and would not be able to survive had the biosphere not been altered by the organisms that came before us.

Current developments

Most research on the biosphere is to determine the effect that human activities have on the environmentespecially on nutrient cycles. Application of fertilizers increases the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients that organisms can use for growth. These excess nutrients damage lakes, causing overgrowth of algae and killing fish. Fuel consumption and land clearing increase carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and may cause global warming (a gradual increase in Earth's temperature) as a result of carbon dioxide's excellent ability to trap heat.

Biosphere 2. Interest in long-term, manned space exploration has also generated research into the development of artificial biospheres. Extended missions into space require that nutrients be cycled in a volume no larger than a building. The Biosphere 2 Project, which received a great deal of popular attention in the early 1990s, provided insight into the difficulty of managing such small, artificial biospheres. The idea behind the project was to establish a planet in miniature where the inhabitants not only survived but learned to live cooperatively and happily together. This is quite revealing, given that human civilization has found it difficult to manage sustainably the much larger biosphere of planet Earth.

Gaia Hypothesis

The Gaia hypothesis (pronounced GAY-a), named for the Greek Earth goddess Gaea, is a recent and controversial theory that views Earth as an integrated, living organism rather than as a mere physical object in space. The Gaia hypothesis suggests that all organisms and their environments (making up the biosphere) work together to maintain physical and chemical conditions on Earth that promote and sustain life. According to the hypothesis, organisms interact with the environment as a homeostatic (balancing) mechanism for regulating such conditions as the concentrations of atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide. This system helps to maintain conditions within a range that is satisfactory for life. Although scientists agree that organisms and the environment have an influence on each other, there is little support within the scientific community for the notion that Earth is an integrated system capable of regulating conditions to sustain itself. The Gaia hypothesis is a useful concept, however, because it emphasizes the relationship between organisms and the environment and the effect that human activities have on them.

One of the most spectacular structures ever built, Biosphere 2 is located in the Sonoran Desert at the foot of the Santa Catalina Mountains not far from Tucson, Arizona. It is the world's largest greenhouse, made of tubular steel and glass, covering an area of three football fields137,416 square feet (12,766 square meters)and rising to a height of 85 feet (26 meters) above the desert floor. Within the structure, there is a human habitat and a farm for the Biospherians or inhabitants to work to provide their own food. There are five other wild habitats or biomes representing a savannah, a rain forest, a marsh, a desert, and an ocean. Biosphere 2 is completely sealed so no air or moisture can flow in or out. Nearby are two balloon-like structures that operate like a pair of lungs for Biosphere 2 by maintaining air pressure inside. Only sunlight and electricity are provided from outside.

On September 26, 1991, four women and four men from three different countries entered the Biosphere 2 and the doors were sealed for the two-year-long initial program of survival and experimentation. During this time, the Biospherians attempted to run the farm and grow their own food in the company of some pigs, goats, and many chickens. They shared the other biomes with over 3,800 species of animals and plants that were native to those habitats. The resident scientists observed the interactions of plants and animals, their reactions to change, and their unique methods of living. The Biospherians also had the assignment of experimenting with new methods of cleaning air and water.

On September 26, 1993, the Biospherians emerged from Biosphere 2. It had been the longest period on record that humans had lived in an "isolated confined environment." Unfortunately, the experiment did not live up to expectations. The Biospherians experienced many difficulties, including an unusually cloudy year in the Arizona desert that stunted food crops, rapid growth and expansion of some ant species, and unusual behavior of bees fooled by the glass walls of the structure. In 1996, Columbia University took over operation of the facility, opening a visitors' center later that year. Biosphere 2 has been maintained for study but without human inhabitants. Its future remains uncertain.

[See also Atmosphere, composition and structure; Gaia hypothesis; Photosynthesis; Respiration ]

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Biosphere

Biosphere

The biosphere is the space on and near Earth's surface that contains and supports living organisms and ecosystems. It is typically subdivided into the lithosphere , atmosphere, and hydrosphere. The lithosphere is the earth's surrounding layer composed of solid soil and rock , the atmosphere is the surrounding gaseous envelope, and the hydrosphere refers to liquid environments such as lakes and oceans , occurring between the lithosphere and atmosphere. The biosphere's creation and continuous evolution result from physical, chemical, and biological processes. To study these processes a multi-disciplinary effort has been employed by scientists from such fields as chemistry , biology, geology , and ecology.

The Austrian geologist Eduard Suess (18311914) first used the term biosphere in 1875 to describe the space on Earth that contains life. The concept introduced by Suess had little impact on the scientific community until it was resurrected by the Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky (18631945) in 1926 in his book, La biosphere. In that work, Vernadsky extensively developed the modern concepts that recognize the interplay between geology, chemistry, and biology in biospheric processes.

For organisms to live, appropriate environmental conditions must exist in terms of temperature , moisture, energy supply, and nutrient availability.

Energy is needed to drive the functions that organisms perform, such as growth, movement, waste removal, and reproduction. Ultimately, this energy is supplied from a source outside the biosphere, in the form of visible radiation received from the Sun . This electromagnetic radiation is captured and stored by plants through the process of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis involves a light-induced, enzymatic reaction between carbon dioxide and water , which produces oxygen and glucose, an organic compound. The glucose is used, through an immense diversity of biochemical reactions, to manufacture the huge range of other organic compounds found in organisms. Potential energy is stored in the chemical bonds of organic molecules and can be released through the process of respiration; this involves enzymatic reactions between organic molecules and oxygen to form carbon dioxide, water, and energy. The growth of organisms is achieved by the accumulation of organic matter, also known as biomass. Plants and some microorganisms are the only organisms that can form organic molecules by photosynthesis. Heterotrophic organisms, including humans, ultimately rely on photosynthetic organisms to supply their energy needs.

The major elements that comprise the chemical building blocks of organisms are carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, calcium, and magnesium. Organisms can only acquire these elements if they occur in chemical forms that can be assimilated from the environment; these are termed available nutrients. Nutrients contained in dead organisms and biological wastes are transformed by decomposition into compounds that organisms can reutilize. In addition, organisms can utilize some mineral sources of nutrients. All of the uptake, excretion, and transformation reactions are aspects of nutrient cycling.

The various chemical forms in which carbon occurs can be used to illustrate nutrient cycling. Carbon occurs as the gaseous molecule carbon dioxide, and in the immense diversity of organic compounds that make up living organisms and dead biomass. Gaseous carbon dioxide is transformed to solid organic compounds (simple sugars) by the process of photosynthesis, as mentioned previously. As organisms grow they deplete the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. If this were to continue without carbon dioxide being replenished at the same rate as the consumption, the atmosphere would eventually be depleted of this crucial nutrient. However, carbon dioxide is returned to the atmosphere at about the same rate that it is consumed, as organisms respire their organic molecules, and microorganisms decompose dead biomass, or when wildfire occurs.

During the long history of life on Earth (about 3.8 billion years), organisms have drastically altered the chemical composition of the biosphere. At the same time, the biosphere's chemical composition has influenced which life forms could inhabit its environments. Rates of nutrient transformation have not always been in balance, resulting in changes in the chemical composition of the biosphere. For example, when life first evolved, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide was much greater than today, and there was almost no free oxygen. After the evolution of photosynthesis there was a large decrease in atmospheric carbon dioxide and an increase in oxygen. Much of carbon once present in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide now occurs in fossil fuel deposits and limestone rock.

The increase in atmospheric oxygen concentration had an enormous influence on the evolution of life. It was not until oxygen reached similar concentrations to what occurs today (about 21% by volume) that multicellular organisms were able to evolve. Such organisms require high oxygen concentrations to accommodate their high rate of respiration.

Most research investigating the biosphere is aimed at determining the effects that human activities are having on its environments and ecosystems. Pollution, fertilizer application, changes in land use, fuel consumption, and other human activities affect nutrient cycles and damage functional components of the biosphere, such as the ozone layer that protects organisms from intense exposure to solar ultraviolet radiation, and the greenhouse effect that moderates the surface temperature of the planet.

For example, fertilizer application increases the amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients that organisms can use for growth. An excess nutrient availability can damage lakes through algal blooms and fish kills. Fuel consumption and land clearing increases the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and may cause global warming by intensifying the planet's greenhouse effect.

Recent interest in long-term, manned space operations has spawned research into the development of artificial biospheres. Extended missions in space require that nutrients be cycled in a volume no larger than a building. The Biosphere-2 project, which received a great deal of popular attention in the early 1990s, has provided insight into the difficulty of managing such small, artificial biospheres. Human civilization is also finding that it is challenging to sustainably manage the much larger biosphere of planet Earth.

See also Atmospheric pollution; Earth (planet); Environmental pollution; Evolution, evidence of; Evolution, mechanisms of; Foliation and exfoliation; Forests and deforestation; Fossil record; Fossils and fossilization; Freshwater; Gaia hypothesis; Solar energy

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Biosphere

Biosphere

Earth's biosphere is the sphere of life around the planet. Its organisms interact with their environment and each other, maintaining conditions on the planet conducive to life. Light from the Sun causes plants and algae to photosynthesize and thereby produce the oxygen that animals and microbes need. As a by-product of their respiration, animals and microbes in turn provide carbon dioxide, which plants require to grow. The oxygen atoms are used over and over again within the biosphere's oxygen cycle. There are many such cycles in a biosphere, with many creatures depending on other creatures for their survival.

Why Build a Biosphere for People?

At current estimates, it would cost around $22,000 to launch a medium pepperoni pizza to the International Space Station. For short space missions of less than two years it is cost effective to take along everything that is needed, as if one were embarking on a camping trip. But longer missions require that the crew grows their own food and that all the oxygen, water, and waste is recycled. The longer the mission away from Earth, the more complete the recycling has to be.

On the space shuttle and the International Space Station, everything that the astronauts and cosmonauts need is taken with them. To maintain a habitable environment within the spacecraft a physical-chemical life support system is used; equipment removes the carbon dioxide and other contaminants from the atmosphere and produces oxygen and water. These systems are efficient and compact, but they require that consumables be brought from Earth. For example, when the carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere it is vented to space or stored. This means that the oxygen contained in that carbon dioxide is no longer available for human consumption and that a source of oxygen must be supplied.

For a mission such as a long-term base on Mars, a life support system is required in which almost everything is recycled and reused and nothing is thrown awaya regenerative system. Systems that use living organisms to perform life support system functions are called bioregenerative life-support systems. Earth has such a bioregenerative systemthe biosphere.

Biosphere 2

In Arizona, scientists built an artificial biosphere, called Biosphere 2. An eight-person crew lived inside the 1.28-hectare (3.15-acre) hermetically sealed structure for two years from 1991 to 1993. They produced their own food and recycled the atmosphere, water, and waste using a bioregenerative life support system.

Biosphere 2 had a mini rain forest, savanna, desert, marsh, and ocean, as well as a farm and a human habitat. The habitat housed the crew quarters, dining room, kitchen, medical facility, and an analytical laboratory for testing that the air was safe to breathe and that the water was safe to drink. There was also a machine shop for making and repairing equipment, such as water pumps, and the Command Room, with videoconferencing, Internet connections, phones, and a station to monitor the environment of each area in the biosphere.

Just as Earth's biosphere has cycles, so do bioregenerative life support systems. In Biosphere 2 the crew ate the same carbon molecules over and over again and breathed the same oxygen. Following is an example of how a water molecule might move through the biosphere.

After drinking a glass of water, a crew member excretes the water molecule as urine. The crew member flushes it into the wastewater treatment system, a specially designed marsh lagoon where plants and microbes work together to purify the water. Once the treatment cycle is complete, the water irrigates the farm crops. After soaking into the soil, the water molecule that the crew member drank is absorbed by the roots of a wheat plant and is later transpired through its leaves. The water molecule is now in the atmosphere, and after passing through a dehumidifying or condensing heat exchanger that maintains the temperature in the biosphere, the water is removed from the atmosphere and placed in a holding tank. A crew member preparing dinner goes into the kitchen and turns on the faucet. Out comes the water molecule, which becomes part of the evening soup. And so on it goes, around and around and around.

Biosphere 2 was the first attempt at a fully bioregenerative life support system. It demonstrated that such a system could be used to support human life on another planet. Someday people will inhabit other planets, and bioregenerative systems will play a key role in allowing that to happen.

see also Closed Ecosystems (volume 3); International Space Station (volumes 1 and 3); Living in Space (volume 3); Living on Other Worlds (volume 4); Mars Bases (volume 4).

Jane Poynter

Bibliography

Eckart, Peter. "Bioregenerative Life Support Concepts." In Spaceflight Life Support and Biospherics. Torrance, CA: Microcosm Inc.; Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer Academic, 1996.

Marino, Bruno D., and H. T. Odum. "Biosphere 2: Introduction and Research Progress." Ecological Engineering 13, nos. 1-4 (1999):4-14.

Purves, William K., Gordon H. Orians, and H. Craig Heller. Life: The Science of Biology, 6th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman, 2001.

Wieland, P. O. Living Together in Space: The Design and Operation of the Life Support Systems on the International Space Station. Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville AL: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1998.

Cabins See Capsules (Volume 3).

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biosphere

biosphere, irregularly shaped envelope of the earth's air, water, and land encompassing the heights and depths at which living things exist. The biosphere is a closed and self-regulating system (see ecology), sustained by grand-scale cycles of energy and of materials—in particular, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, certain minerals, and water. The fundamental recycling processes are photosynthesis, respiration, and the fixing of nitrogen by certain bacteria. Disruption of basic ecological activities in the biosphere can result from pollution.

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biosphere

bi·o·sphere / ˈbīəˌsfi(ə)r/ • n. the regions of the surface, atmosphere, and hydrosphere of the earth (or analogous parts of other planets) occupied by living organisms. DERIVATIVES: bi·o·spher·ic / ˌbīəˈsfi(ə)rik; -ˈsfer-/ adj.

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biosphere

biosphere The part of the Earth's environment in which living organisms are found, and with which they interact to produce a steady-state system, effectively a whole-planet ecosystem. Sometimes it is termed ‘ecosphere’ to emphasize the interconnection of the living and non-living components.

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biosphere

biosphere The part of the Earth's environment in which living organisms are found, and with which they interact to produce a steady-state system, effectively a whole-planet ecosystem. Sometimes it is termed ‘ecosphere’ to emphasize the interconnection of the living and non-living components.

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biosphere

biosphere The part of the Earth's environment in which living organisms are found, and with which they interact to produce a steady-state system, effectively a whole-planet ecosystem. Sometimes it is termed ‘ecosphere’ to emphasize the interconnection of the biotic and abiotic components.

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biosphere

biosphere The part of the Earth's environment in which living organisms are found, and with which they interact to produce a steady-state system, effectively a whole-planet ecosystem. Sometimes it is termed ‘ecosphere’ to emphasize the interconnection of the biotic and abiotic components.

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biosphere

biosphere Portion of the Earth from its crust to the surrounding atmosphere that contains living organisms. It includes the oceans, a thin layer of the Earth's crust, and the lower reaches of the atmosphere.

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biosphere

biosphere The whole of the region of the earth's surface, the sea, and the air that is inhabited by living organisms.

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biosphere

biosphereGambia, ZambiaArabia, labia, SwabiaLibya, Namibia, tibia •euphorbia •agoraphobia, claustrophobia, homophobia, hydrophobia, phobia, technophobia, xenophobia, Zenobia •Nubia • rootbeer • cumbia •Colombia, Columbia •exurbia, Serbia, suburbia •Wiltshire • Flintshire •gaillardia, Nadia, tachycardia •steadier • compendia •Acadia, Arcadia, nadir, stadia •reindeer •acedia, encyclopedia, media, multimedia •Lydia, Numidia •India • belvedere • Claudia •Cambodia, odea, plasmodia, podia, roe-deer •Mafia, raffia, tafia •Philadelphia • hemisphere •planisphere • Montgolfier • Sofia •ecosphere • biosphere • atmosphere •thermosphere • ionosphere •stratosphere • headgear • switchgear •logia • nemesia • menhir

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