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A false-color composite of global oceanic and terrestrial photoautotroph abundance, from September 2001 to August 2017. Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE. Seawifs global biosphere.jpg
A false-color composite of global oceanic and terrestrial photoautotroph abundance, from September 2001 to August 2017. Provided by the SeaWiFS Project, NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.

The biosphere (from Greek βίος bíos "life" and σφαῖρα sphaira "sphere"), also known as the ecosphere (from Greek οἶκος oîkos "environment" and σφαῖρα), is the worldwide sum of all ecosystems. It can also be termed the zone of life on Earth, a closed system (apart from solar and cosmic radiation and heat from the interior of the Earth), and largely self-regulating. [1] By the most general biophysiological definition, the biosphere is the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with the elements of the lithosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere. The biosphere is postulated to have evolved, beginning with a process of biopoiesis (life created naturally from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds) or biogenesis (life created from living matter), at least some 3.5 billion years ago. [2] [3]


In a general sense, biospheres are any closed, self-regulating systems containing ecosystems. This includes artificial biospheres such as Biosphere 2 and BIOS-3, and potentially ones on other planets or moons. [4]

Origin and use of the term

A beach scene on Earth, simultaneously showing the lithosphere (ground), hydrosphere (ocean) and atmosphere (air) 90 mile beach.jpg
A beach scene on Earth, simultaneously showing the lithosphere (ground), hydrosphere (ocean) and atmosphere (air)

The term "biosphere" was coined by geologist Eduard Suess in 1875, which he defined as the place on Earth's surface where life dwells. [5]

While the concept has a geological origin, it is an indication of the effect of both Charles Darwin and Matthew F. Maury on the Earth sciences. The biosphere's ecological context comes from the 1920s (see Vladimir I. Vernadsky), preceding the 1935 introduction of the term "ecosystem" by Sir Arthur Tansley (see ecology history). Vernadsky defined ecology as the science of the biosphere. It is an interdisciplinary concept for integrating astronomy, geophysics, meteorology, biogeography, evolution, geology, geochemistry, hydrology and, generally speaking, all life and Earth sciences.

Narrow definition

Geochemists define the biosphere as being the total sum of living organisms (the "biomass" or "biota" as referred to by biologists and ecologists). In this sense, the biosphere is but one of four separate components of the geochemical model, the other three being geosphere , hydrosphere , and atmosphere . When these four component spheres are combined into one system, it is known as the Ecosphere. This term was coined during the 1960s and encompasses both biological and physical components of the planet. [6]

The Second International Conference on Closed Life Systems defined biospherics as the science and technology of analogs and models of Earth's biosphere; i.e., artificial Earth-like biospheres. [7] Others may include the creation of artificial non-Earth biospheres—for example, human-centered biospheres or a native Martian biosphere—as part of the topic of biospherics.[ citation needed ]

Earth's biosphere


Stromatolite fossil estimated at 3.2-3.6 billion years old Stromatolithe Paleoarcheen - MNHT.PAL.2009.10.1.jpg
Stromatolite fossil estimated at 3.2–3.6 billion years old

The earliest evidence for life on Earth includes biogenic graphite found in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks from Western Greenland [8] and microbial mat fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone from Western Australia. [9] [10] More recently, in 2015, "remains of biotic life" were found in 4.1 billion-year-old rocks in Western Australia. [11] [12] In 2017, putative fossilized microorganisms (or microfossils) were announced to have been discovered in hydrothermal vent precipitates in the Nuvvuagittuq Belt of Quebec, Canada that were as old as 4.28 billion years, the oldest record of life on earth, suggesting "an almost instantaneous emergence of life" after ocean formation 4.4 billion years ago, and not long after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago. [13] [14] [15] [16] According to biologist Stephen Blair Hedges, "If life arose relatively quickly on Earth ... then it could be common in the universe." [11]


Ruppell's vulture Ruppelsvulture.jpg
Rüppell's vulture
Xenophyophore, a barophilic organism, from the Galapagos Rift. XenophyophoreNOAA.jpg
Xenophyophore, a barophilic organism, from the Galapagos Rift.

Every part of the planet, from the polar ice caps to the equator, features life of some kind. Recent advances in microbiology have demonstrated that microbes live deep beneath the Earth's terrestrial surface, and that the total mass of microbial life in so-called "uninhabitable zones" may, in biomass, exceed all animal and plant life on the surface. The actual thickness of the biosphere on earth is difficult to measure. Birds typically fly at altitudes as high as 1,800 m (5,900 ft; 1.1 mi) and fish live as much as 8,372 m (27,467 ft; 5.202 mi) underwater in the Puerto Rico Trench. [2]

There are more extreme examples for life on the planet: Rüppell's vulture has been found at altitudes of 11,300 m (37,100 ft; 7.0 mi); bar-headed geese migrate at altitudes of at least 8,300 m (27,200 ft; 5.2 mi); yaks live at elevations as high as 5,400 m (17,700 ft; 3.4 mi) above sea level; mountain goats live up to 3,050 m (10,010 ft; 1.90 mi). Herbivorous animals at these elevations depend on lichens, grasses, and herbs.

Life forms live in every part of the Earth's biosphere, including soil, hot springs, inside rocks at least 19 km (12 mi) deep underground, the deepest parts of the ocean, and at least 64 km (40 mi) high in the atmosphere. [17] [18] [19] Microorganisms, under certain test conditions, have been observed to survive the vacuum of outer space. [20] [21] The total amount of soil and subsurface bacterial carbon is estimated as 5 × 1017 g, or the "weight of the United Kingdom". [17] The mass of prokaryote microorganisms—which includes bacteria and archaea, but not the nucleated eukaryote microorganisms—may be as much as 0.8 trillion tons of carbon (of the total biosphere mass, estimated at between 1 and 4 trillion tons). [22] Barophilic marine microbes have been found at more than a depth of 10,000 m (33,000 ft; 6.2 mi) in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the Earth's oceans. [23] In fact, single-celled life forms have been found in the deepest part of the Mariana Trench, by the Challenger Deep, at depths of 11,034 m (36,201 ft; 6.856 mi). [24] [25] [26] Other researchers reported related studies that microorganisms thrive inside rocks up to 580 m (1,900 ft; 0.36 mi) below the sea floor under 2,590 m (8,500 ft; 1.61 mi) of ocean off the coast of the northwestern United States, [25] [27] as well as 2,400 m (7,900 ft; 1.5 mi) beneath the seabed off Japan. [28] Culturable thermophilic microbes have been extracted from cores drilled more than 5,000 m (16,000 ft; 3.1 mi) into the Earth's crust in Sweden, [29] from rocks between 65–75 °C (149–167 °F). Temperature increases with increasing depth into the Earth's crust. The rate at which the temperature increases depends on many factors, including type of crust (continental vs. oceanic), rock type, geographic location, etc. The greatest known temperature at which microbial life can exist is 122 °C (252 °F) ( Methanopyrus kandleri Strain 116), and it is likely that the limit of life in the "deep biosphere" is defined by temperature rather than absolute depth.[ citation needed ] On 20 August 2014, scientists confirmed the existence of microorganisms living 800 m (2,600 ft; 0.50 mi) below the ice of Antarctica. [30] [31] According to one researcher, "You can find microbes everywhere – they're extremely adaptable to conditions, and survive wherever they are." [25]

Our biosphere is divided into a number of biomes, inhabited by fairly similar flora and fauna. On land, biomes are separated primarily by latitude. Terrestrial biomes lying within the Arctic and Antarctic Circles are relatively barren of plant and animal life, while most of the more populous biomes lie near the equator.

Annual variation

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On land, vegetation appears on a scale from brown (low vegetation) to dark green (heavy vegetation); at the ocean surface, phytoplankton are indicated on a scale from purple (low) to yellow (high). This visualization was created with data from satellites including SeaWiFS, and instruments including the NASA/NOAA Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite and the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer.

Artificial biospheres

Biosphere 2 in Arizona. Biosphere 2 4888964549.jpg
Biosphere 2 in Arizona.

Experimental biospheres, also called closed ecological systems, have been created to study ecosystems and the potential for supporting life outside the Earth. These include spacecraft and the following terrestrial laboratories:

Extraterrestrial biospheres

No biospheres have been detected beyond the Earth; therefore, the existence of extraterrestrial biospheres remains hypothetical. The rare Earth hypothesis suggests they should be very rare, save ones composed of microbial life only. [35] On the other hand, Earth analogs may be quite numerous, at least in the Milky Way galaxy, given the large number of planets. [36] Three of the planets discovered orbiting TRAPPIST-1 could possibly contain biospheres. [37] Given limited understanding of abiogenesis, it is currently unknown what percentage of these planets actually develop biospheres.

Based on observations by the Kepler Space Telescope team, it has been calculated that provided the probability of abiogenesis is higher than 1 to 1000, the closest alien biosphere should be within 100 light-years from the Earth. [38]

It is also possible that artificial biospheres will be created in the future, for example with the terraforming of Mars. [39]

See also

Related Research Articles

Astrobiology Science concerned with life in the universe

Astrobiology, formerly known as exobiology, is an interdisciplinary scientific field concerned with the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. Astrobiology considers the question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it.

Extraterrestrial life Hypothetical life which may occur outside of Earth and which did not originate on Earth

Extraterrestrial life is hypothetical life which may occur outside of Earth and which did not originate on Earth. Such life might range from simple prokaryotes to beings with civilizations far more advanced than humanity. The Drake equation speculates about the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The science of extraterrestrial life in all its forms is known as astrobiology.

Extremophile Organisms capable of living in extreme environments

An extremophile is an organism with optimal growth in environmental conditions considered extreme in that it is challenging for a carbon-based life form, such as all life on Earth, to survive.

Life Characteristic that distinguishes physical entities having biological processes

Life is a characteristic that distinguishes physical entities that have biological processes, such as signaling and self-sustaining processes, from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased, or because they never had such functions and are classified as inanimate. Various forms of life exist, such as plants, animals, fungi, protists, archaea, and bacteria. Biology is the science concerned with the study of life.

Microorganism Microscopic living organism

A microorganism, or microbe, is a microscopic organism, which may exist in its single-celled form or a colony of cells.

Panspermia A hypothesis on the interstellar spreading of primordial life

Panspermia is the hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, distributed by space dust, meteoroids, asteroids, comets, planetoids, and also by spacecraft carrying unintended contamination by microorganisms. Distribution may have occurred spanning galaxies, and so may not be restricted to the limited scale of solar systems.

Geomicrobiology Intersection of microbiology and geology

Geomicrobiology is the scientific field at the intersection of geology and microbiology. It concerns the role of microbes on geological and geochemical processes and effects of minerals and metals to microbial growth, activity and survival. Such interactions occur in the geosphere, the atmosphere and the hydrosphere. Geomicrobiology studies microorganisms that are driving the Earth's biogeochemical cycles, mediating mineral precipitation and dissolution, and sorbing and concentrating metals. The applications include for example bioremediation, mining, climate change mitigation and public drinking water supplies.

Life on Mars Scientific assessments on the microbial habitability of Mars

The possibility of life on Mars is a subject of huge interest in astrobiology due to its proximity and similarities to Earth. To date, no proof has been found of past or present life on Mars. Cumulative evidence shows that during the ancient Noachian time period, the surface environment of Mars had liquid water and may have been habitable for microorganisms. The existence of habitable conditions does not necessarily indicate the presence of life.

Microbial ecology Study of the relationship of microorganisms with their environment

Microbial ecology is the ecology of microorganisms: their relationship with one another and with their environment. It concerns the three major domains of life—Eukaryota, Archaea, and Bacteria—as well as viruses.

Microbial mat multi-layered sheet of microorganisms

A microbial mat is a multi-layered sheet of microorganisms, mainly bacteria and archaea, and also just bacterial. Microbial mats grow at interfaces between different types of material, mostly on submerged or moist surfaces, but a few survive in deserts. They colonize environments ranging in temperature from –40 °C to 120 °C. A few are found as endosymbionts of animals.

Life on Venus Scientific assessments on the microbial habitability of Venus

The possibility of life on Venus is a subject of interest in astrobiology due to its proximity and similarities to Earth. To date, no definitive proof has been found of past or present life on Venus. Theories have decreased significantly since the early 1960s, when spacecraft began studying the planet and it became clear that its environment is extreme compared to Earth's. However, there is ongoing study as to whether life could have existed on the Venusian surface before a runaway greenhouse effect took hold, and related study as to whether a relict biosphere could persist high in the modern Venusian atmosphere.

Marine microorganisms Any life form too small for the naked human eye to see that lives in a marine environment

Marine microorganisms are defined by their habitat as the microorganisms living in a marine environment, that is, in the saltwater of a sea or ocean or the brackish water of a coastal estuary. A microorganism is any microscopic living organism, that is, any life form too small for the naked human eye to really see, needing a microscope. Microorganisms are very diverse. They can be single-celled or multicellular and include all bacteria and archaea and most protozoa, as well as some species of fungi, algae, and certain microscopic animals, such as rotifers and copepods. Many macroscopic animals and plants have microscopic juvenile stages. Some microbiologists also classify biologically active entities such as viruses and viroids as microorganisms, but others consider these as non-living.

Directed panspermia is the deliberate transport of microorganisms in space to be used as introduced species on lifeless but habitable astronomical objects.

Biological dark matter is an informal term for unclassified or poorly understood genetic material. This genetic material may refer to genetic material produced by unclassified microorganisms. By extension, biological dark matter may also refer to the un-isolated microorganism whose existence can only be inferred from the genetic material that they produce. Some of the genetic material may not fall under the three existing domains of life: Bacteria, Archaea and Eukaryota; thus, it has been suggested that a possible fourth domain of life may yet to be discovered, although other explanations are also probable. Alternatively, the genetic material may refer to non-coding DNA and non-coding RNA produced by known organisms.

The Deep Carbon Observatory (DCO) is a global research program designed to transform understanding of carbon's role in Earth. DCO is a community of scientists, including biologists, physicists, geoscientists and chemists, whose work crosses several traditional disciplinary lines to develop the new, integrative field of deep carbon science. To complement this research, the DCO's infrastructure includes public engagement and education, online and offline community support, innovative data management, and novel instrumentation development.

Tanpopo (mission) ISS astrobiology experiment investigating the potential interplanetary transfer of life, organic compounds, and possible terrestrial particles in the low Earth orbit

The Tanpopo mission is an orbital astrobiology experiment investigating the potential interplanetary transfer of life, organic compounds, and possible terrestrial particles in the low Earth orbit. The purpose is to assess the panspermia hypothesis and the possibility of natural interplanetary transport of microbial life as well as prebiotic organic compounds.

Astro microbiology, or exo microbiology, is the study of microorganisms in outer space. It stems from an interdisciplinary approach, which incorporates both microbiology and astrobiology. Astrobiology's efforts are aimed at understanding the origins of life and the search for life other than on Earth. Because microorganisms are the most widespread form of life on Earth, and are capable of colonising almost any environment, scientists usually focus on microbial life in the field of astrobiology. Moreover, small and simple cells usually evolve first on a planet rather than larger, multicellular organisms, and have an increased likelihood of being transported from one planet to another via the panspermia theory.

Earliest known life forms Putative fossilized microorganisms found near hydrothermal vents

The earliest known life forms on Earth are putative fossilized microorganisms found in hydrothermal vent precipitates. The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is at least 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years, or even 4.5 billion years; not long after the oceans formed 4.41 billion years ago, and after the formation of the Earth 4.54 billion years ago. The earliest direct evidence of life on Earth are microfossils of microorganisms permineralized in 3.465-billion-year-old Australian Apex chert rocks.

Mark Alexander Lever is a microbial ecologist who studies the role of microorganisms in the global carbon cycle. He is a professor of environmental microbiology in the Department of Environmental Systems Science in the Institute of Biogeochemical and Pollutant Dynamics at ETH Zurich.


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Further reading