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For modern ecologists, ecology can be studied at several levels:popula­tionlevel (individuals of the same species), biocoenosis level (orcommunity of species),ecosystem level, and biosphere level.

Theouter layerof the planet Earth can be divided into severalcom­partments:the hydrosphere (or sphere of water), the lithosphere (or sphere of soils and rocks), and the atmosphere (or sphere of the air). The biosphere (or sphere of life), sometimes described as «the fourth envelope», is all living matter on the planet or that portion of the planet occupied by life. It reaches well into the other three spheres, although there are nopermanent inhabi­tantsof the atmosphere. Relative to the volume of the Earth, the biosphere is only the very thin surface layer which extends from 11,000 meters below sea level to 15,000 meters above.

The biosphere contains great quantities of elements such as carbon, ni­trogen and oxygen.Other elements, such as phosphorus, calcium, and potas­sium, are also essential to life, yet are present in smaller amounts. At the eco­system and biosphere levels, there is acontinual recyclingof all these ele­ments, which alternate between the mineral and organic states.

The functioning of the ecosystem is based on theinput of solar energy. Plants and photosynthetic microorganisms convert light into chemical energy by the process of photosynthesis, which creates glucose (a simple sugar) and releases free oxygen. Glucose thus becomes the secondary energy source which drives the ecosystem. Some of this glucose is used directly by other organisms for energy. Other sugar molecules can be converted to other mole­cules such as amino acids. Plants use some of this sugar, concentrated in nec­tar to attractpollinatorsto help them in reproduction.

Cellular respirationis the process by which organisms (likemam­mals)break the glucose back down into itsconstituents,water and carbon dioxide, thus regaining the stored energy of the sun.

The proportion of photosynthetic activity of plants and other photosyn- thesizers to the respiration of other organisms determines the specific compo­sition of the Earth's atmosphere, particularly its oxygen level. Global air cur­rents mix the atmosphere andmaintain nearly the same balance of ele­mentsin areas ofintense biological activityand areas ofslight biological activity.

Water is also exchanged between the hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmos­phere and biosphere in regular cycles. The oceans are large tanks, which store water, ensure thermal and climatic stability, as well as the transport of chemi­cal elements thanks to largeoceanic currents.

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