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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 ecologyecology,
study of the relationships of organisms to their physical environment and to one another. The study of an individual organism or a single species is termed autecology; the study of groups of organisms is called synecology.
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), sustained by grand-scale cycles of energy and of materials—in particular, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, certain minerals, and water. The fundamental recycling processes are photosynthesisphotosynthesis
, process in which green plants, algae, and cyanobacteria utilize the energy of sunlight to manufacture carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water in the presence of chlorophyll. Some of the plants that lack chlorophyll, e.g.
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, respiration, and the fixing of nitrogen by certain bacteria. Disruption of basic ecological activities in the biosphere can result from pollutionpollution,
contamination of the environment as a result of human activities. The term pollution refers primarily to the fouling of air, water, and land by wastes (see air pollution; water pollution; solid waste).
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The ecosystem composed of the earth and its atmosphere in which living organisms exist or that is capable of supporting life.



the earth’s envelope whose structure, composition, and energetics are determined in their essential features by past or present activities of living organisms. The biosphere includes part of the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the upper part of the lithosphere, which are interconnected by complex biogeochemical cycles of migration of substances and energy (according to V. I. Vernadskii, the biogenic migration of atoms); the inceptive moment of these cycles consists in the transformation of solar energy by plants and the synthesis of biogenic substances on earth. The Austrian geologist E. Süss introduced the term “biosphere” in 1875. The general science of the biosphere was created in the 1920’s and 1930’s by V. I. Vernadskii, who developed the ideas of V. V. Dokuchaev on the complex natural-historical analysis of heterogeneous objects and phenomena that interact in nature (factors of soil formation) and the development of independent natural objects of heterogeneous structure and composition (soils and natural zones). The foundation of Vernadskii’s teachings is formed by two ideas. The first is the planetary geochemical role of living matter—that is, the totality of all living organisms that have existed or still exist in a given time segment, which are regarded as a powerful geologic factor. (In contrast to living beings, which are studied in biology on all levels of organization beginning with the molecular, living matter as a biogeochemical factor—as Vernadskii understood it—is expressed quantitatively in elementary chemical composition, mass, and energy.) The second idea is the complex transformation of matter-energy and informational flows by living matter during the geologic history of the earth.

The biosphere includes not only areas of life (the biogeosphere, phytogeosphere, geomeris, and vitasphere) but also other terrestrial structures that are genetically connected with living matter. According to Vernadskii, the matter of the biosphere consists of a family of diverse but geologically interconnected parts—living matter, biogenic matter, inert matter, bioinert matter, radioactive matter, dispersed atoms, and matter of cosmic origin. Either living matter or traces of its biogeochemical activity is found everywhere within the biosphere. The gases of the atmosphere (oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide), natural waters, and also caustobioliths (petroleums, coals), limestones, clays, and their metamorphic derivatives (shales, marbles, granites, and so on) are basically composed by the living matter of the planet. The layers of the earth’s crust which at present lack living matter but which have been converted by it in the geologic past are classified by Vernadskii as “former biospheres.” The biosphere is mosaic in structure and composition, reflecting the geochemical and geophysical heterogeneity of the face of the earth (oceans, lakes, mountains, gorges, plains, and so on) and the inequality of distribution of living matter over the planet in the past as well as in our time. The maximum content of living matter in the hydrosphere is assigned to shallow waters; the minimum, to deep-water areas (abyssal zone). On dry land this inequality of distribution is manifested in the mosaic of the biogeocenotic cover (forests, swamps, steppes, deserts, and so on) with a minimum density of living matter in the high-mountain, desert, and polar regions. The elementary structure of the active portion of the contemporary biosphere is the biogeocenosis.

Living matter performs the following biogeochemical functions: gaseous (migration of gases and their transformations), concentration (accumulation of chemical elements from the external environment by living organisms), oxidation-reduction (chemical transformations of substances containing atoms with variable valence—compounds of iron, manganese, trace elements, and so on), and biochemical and biogeochemical functions associated with human activity (technogenesis: a form of creation and transformation of matter in the biosphere that stimulates conversion of the biosphere to a new state—the “noosphere”). The totality of these functions determines all chemical transformations in the biosphere. The evolution of the biosphere is dialectically connected with the evolution of the forms of living matter (organisms and their communities) and with the growing complexity of its biochemical functions, which are realized against the background of the geologic history of earth.

The following principal aspects are distinguished in the study of the biosphere: the energy aspect, which clarifies the connection of biospheric-planetary phenomena with cosmic radiation (principally solar) and radioactive processes in the bowels of the earth; the biogeochemical aspect, which reflects the role of living matter in the distribution and behavior of atoms (more precisely, of their isotopes) in the biosphere and its structures; the informational aspect, which studies the principles of organization and operation realized in living nature in connection with investigation of the influence of living matter on the structure and composition of the biosphere; the space-time aspect, which illuminates the formation and evolution of various structures of the biosphere in geological time, in connection with the organized quality of living matter in the biosphere (for example, problems of symmetry); and the noospheric aspect, which studies the global effects of the action of humanity on the structure and chemistry of the biosphere—the mining of minerals, the obtaining of substances heretofore absent from the biosphere (for example, pure aluminum and iron), and the transformation of biogeocenotic structures of the biosphere (the clearing of forests, draining of swamps, plowing of virgin lands, and creation of reservoirs; the pollution of water, soil, and the atmosphere by products of industrial activity; the introduction of fertilizers; soil erosion, forestation, building of cities and dams, commercial activity, and so on). Man’s entry into space, beyond the boundaries of the biosphere, will stimulate the development of new aspects in the study of the biosphere. An essential feature in the study of the biosphere is the notion of the interconnections (forward and reverse connections) and the interlinked evolution of all the structures of the biosphere. This idea is the basis for work on the “biosphere and mankind” problem by many national and international organizations, scientific centers, and laboratories. Measures in which many countries are participating—for example, the International Hydrological Decade and the International Biological Program—are aimed at a solution to this problem. Increased interest in studying the biosphere has been stimulated by the fact that the localized effect of man on the biosphere, characteristic of all past history, has been replaced in the 20th century by his global influence on the composition, structure, and resources of the biosphere. There is no section of the land or sea of this planet where the signs of man’s activity have not been observed. One of the outstanding examples is global radioactive fallout—the product of nuclear explosions. The products of the combustion of petroleum, coal, and gases, the by-products of the chemical and other industries, poisonous pesticides and fertilizers carried away from the fields in the process of water and wind erosion are present everywhere—in the atmosphere, in the ocean, and on dry land (although in most insignificant quantities). Intensive and irrational use of the resources of the biosphere (water, gaseous, biological, and so on), aggravated by such factors as the arms race and experiments with nuclear weapons, has shattered the myth of the infiniteness and inexhaustibility of those resources. Numerous examples of the destructive activity of man and unfortunately rare instances of his constructive activity (including plans for conservation) testify to the urgency of rational management of the earth’s affairs by a rational mankind, which is possible only with a conversion from elementary capitalist production to the planned economy of a socialist or communist society. The natural-scientific basis for a rational approach to the biosphere and man’s activities which is one of the major problems of our time, is the study of the biosphere and biogeocenology— disciplines that deal with the general principles and mechanisms of the function and evolution of communities of living organisms within certain definite spatial and temporal conditions. The modern structure of the biosphere is the product of a prolonged evolution of many systems of varying complexity, continually striving toward a state of dynamic equilibrium. The practical value of studying the biosphere is tremendous. Public health agencies, agriculture, industry, and other branches of human endeavor, which more frequently than others encounter the “answering blows” of the biosphere provoked by irrational or careless transformation of nature by man, are especially interested in the development of this science.


Vernadskii, V. I. Izbr. soch., vol. 5. Moscow, 1960.
Vernadskii, V. I. Khimicheskoe stroenie biosfery Zemli i ee okruzheniia. Moscow, 1965.
Kovda, V. A. “Sovremennoe uchenie o biosfere. Zhurnal obshcheibiologii, vol. 30, no. 1.
Perel’man, A. I. Geokhimiia landshafta. Moscow, 1961.
Timofeev-Resovskii, N. V., and A. N. Tiuriukanov. “Ob elementarnykh biokhorologicheskikh podrazdeleniiakh biosfery.” Biulletin’ Moskovskogo obshchestva ispytatelei prirody, 1966, vol. 71 (1).
Khil’mi, G. F. Osnovy fiziki biosfery. Leningrad, 1966.
Duvigneaud, P., and M. Tanghe. Biosfera i mesto ν nei cheloveka. Moscow, 1968. (Translated from French.)



The life zone of the earth, including the lower part of the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, soil, and the lithosphere to a depth of about 1.2 miles (2 kilometers).


That transition zone between earth and atmosphere within which most forms of terrestrial life are commonly found. Biosphere is the outer portion of the geosphere and inner or lower portion of the atmosphere.


the part of the earth's surface and atmosphere inhabited by living things
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