Responding to Change

Living things sense and respond to change to ensure survival and optimum functioning.  No environment is perfect for sustaining life without the organism itself adapting to it. 

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Table of contents

    What are the changes in our ecosystem?

    Our environment is in a state of constant change. One day might bring you a heatwave, making you sweat and hyperventilate, another day might bring you a broken thermostat in the middle of the winter. While some animals in the desert are in a state of constant water deficit, others could be struggling to keep themselves dry. Taller plants in the rainforest get an abundance of light, while the lower branches get fractured bits of sunlight.

    While adaptations assist organisms to successfully respond to long-term environmental conditions, organisms have to prepare for sudden, emergent changes that the environment can surprise them with. These changes require an instant response for the organism to protect itself. This is where the concept of homeostasis comes in.

    Cells maintain homeostasis by responding to change

    Homeostasis is the maintenance of the internal conditions of the cells to the optimum levels, despite the external environment and the changes that occur within it.

    The five facets that constitute the internal conditions of the cell include:

    • The water content.

    • Temperature.

    • pH level of the cell contents.

    • The nutrition level – mainly the concentration of glucose in the cell.

    • Pressure levels in comparison to the environment.

    Changes in any of these parameters act as a trigger for cells. These changes are known as stimuli.

    Response to stimuli

    Internal and external changes in the organism’s environment that interfere with the organism’s ability to carry out reactions efficiently require a response. It is vital that a response is given. Let’s take a closer look at the process.

    The role of stimuli in responding to change

    Stimuli are sudden environmental changes that stimulate a cascade of organised chemical reactions in various organ systems. This leads to adapting and responding to change to protect the organism.

    Cells detect changes through a specialised monitoring and security system called receptors.

    What are receptors?

    Receptors are molecules sensitive to changes in the cells’ internal and external environment.

    When the receptors detect changes, they send signals to the control centres to remedy the changes.

    What is a response?

    What happens next? As discussed, receptors send chemical or electrical impulses to the organism’s control centre. The control centre, in turn, sends signals to the relevant systems that can identify and respond positively to change. These target organs are called effectors, and the reaction to the stimuli is called a response.

    Responding to Change, stimulus receptor response, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Response to change

    Let’s look at glucose control in the body as an example of a cell responding to its environment.

    Example of cells responding to their environment

    Meet X, a healthy person with no history of disease. Let's follow a scenario:

    1. X eats a doughnut.
    2. A few hours later, glucose is absorbed through the intestines into the bloodstream, causing an increase in blood glucose concentration. Some of the glucose is absorbed by the cells through simple diffusion, but not enough. The amount left in the bloodstream remains higher than normal.
    3. High blood glucose level stimulates the receptors in the pancreas, which in turn cause the production and release of a hormone called insulin. Insulin enters the bloodstream and stimulates the uptake of glucose molecules into the cells, thus providing them with the nutrition they require to carry out their functions.

    However, what happens if X doesn’t eat anything else that day and there is no glucose in their bloodstream? Luckily, earlier, when X had just eaten, some of the glucose molecules were stored by the liver cells and packed away in the form of glycogen. When the blood glucose concentration is dangerously low, a hormone called glucagon is released. Glucagon stimulates the conversion of glycogen into glucose and its release into the bloodstream. This ensures the maintenance of the homeostasis of blood glucose.

    When presented with a complicated question loaded with a lot of information, first break it down into broad categories, as demonstrated below. It will make the question’s intentions clearer.

    Responding to Change, cells respond to changes in their environment, StudySmarterFig. 2 -Example of cells responding to their environment in the human body

    Responding to change in plants

    While animals have more dramatic responses to stimuli, plants have to modify their growth patterns according to the changes in the environment. This is due to their inability to move around. Plants need adequate sunlight and water for optimum survival. They grow towards or away from the stimuli through patterns of growth called tropism.

    Tropisms are predominantly regulated by the hormone auxin, present in the plant’s roots and shoots. Auxin promotes cell division, and its concentration in various areas of the stem or root determines the direction of growth. Plant stems grow towards the light as they contain chloroplasts which are the site of photosynthesis reactions. The auxins are distributed towards the area of the plant, which receives light and stimulates growth.

    The plant identifies ways to respond positively to change and lean towards the stimulus – this is positive phototropism. Roots demonstrate negative phototropisms by growing away from the well-lit into the shaded areas (usually underground, as deeper soil has higher water concentration).

    Another hormone called ethylene causes the fruits of the plant to ripen.

    Responding to Change, positive and negative phototropism, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Phototropism in roots and shoots of plants

    Nervous coordination in responding to change

    In animals, the response to change involves a more complex mechanism of action, which includes various groups of cells. The receptors flag the stimulus, which converts it into electrical and chemical signals, further transmitting these signals to the brain via nerve cells called neurons. Signals are transmitted amongst cells via action potential – changes in the potential of the cell membranes. All these changes occur in the nervous system, which consists of the brain, the spinal cord, nerves, and neurons.

    Muscle contraction in responding to change

    Some stimuli require the organism to move to respond to the stimulus. This involves the limbs and other muscle groups which are responsible for mobility. There is a synchronised contraction and relaxation of the various skeletal muscle groups, overseen by the brain and the spinal cord and transmitted through neurons. The movement of the sliding filaments and the consequent contraction and relaxation of the muscles are controlled by electric and chemical signals and can be voluntary or involuntary.

    Responding to Change - Key Takeaways

    • When there is a change in the organism’s environment, it needs to react and protect itself to survive. This involves a cascade of reactions which are called a response to change.

    • Homeostasis is the internal environment of the cell and is a careful balance of five parameters: the water content, temperature, the pH level of the cell contents, the nutrition level – mainly the concentration of glucose in the cell, and pressure levels in comparison to the environment.

    • A stimulus is a change in the ecosystem that can affect the organism’s homeostasis and requires a response for the organism to survive. A receptor is a structure that notices the stimulus and signals the organism’s control centre to organise and carry out a response to the environment.

    • Plants respond to environmental stimuli through patterns of growth called tropisms. These are regulated by a hormone called auxin, which is present in the roots and shoots of the plant. Ethylene is a plant hormone that is responsible for the blooming of flowers and the ripening of fruits.

    • Animals respond to changes in the internal environment through predominantly hormones and enzymes. They respond to changes in the external environment through neuro-muscular coordination.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Responding to Change

    How do plants respond to changing seasons?

    Plants require an optimum level of sunlight to survive and grow. Most plants thrive during spring and summer as the conditions are nearly perfect for survival, growth, and reproduction. This is when the majority of the plant hormones are released. However, as the duration of daylight and the temperature decreases during autumn, most plants tend to shed their leaves and enter a state of dormancy to survive the harsh winters.

    How do organisms respond to changes in an ecosystem?

    Changes in the environment or stimuli trigger the receptors present in cells. These receptors signal the presence of these changes to the organism’s control centre through chemical or electrical signals.  This stimulates responses conducted by the control centre (the nucleus of the cell or the brain) and the target organelles. This ensures the maintenance of homeostasis.

    Why do organisms change?

    There are two major reasons why organisms change. The first one is to adapt to long-term changes in the environment and ensure the optimal functioning of the organism. The second reason is to protect themselves from sudden, endangering stimuli. Broadly, the reason for the change is to maintain homeostasis.

    What is an example of an organism responding to its environment?

    When an organism is placed in a cold environment, the body has to compensate to maintain the optimal body temperature of 37.5 C. It responds to the cold stimulus by rapidly contracting the skeletal muscles, what we call shivering, by constricting capillaries on the surface of the skin, which causes a reduction in heat loss, and by constricting the hair follicle, causing the hair to stand up and form an insulating layer of air above the skin.

    How do communities respond to change?

    Communities respond to change by adapting to change as a cohesive unit by establishing specific roles amongst members of the community. A community responds to change by adaptation, interdependence, and sometimes competing for resources with other communities. Competition can be for resources in the environment and can occur between communities or between other organisms in the environment.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What type of neurone is in the centre of a Pacinian corpuscle?

    What happens to the nerve during the refractory period?

    Select the answer that is NOT true about the structure of Pacinian corpuscles


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