The relationship between structure and function is a major constituent of the rules of life. Structures and functions occur across all levels of biological organization. Current efforts to integrate conceptual frameworks and approaches to address new and old questions promise to allow a more holistic and robust understanding of how different biological functions are achieved across levels of biological organization. Here, we provide unifying and generalizable definitions of both structure and function that can be applied across all levels of biological organization. However, we find differences in the nature of structures at the organismal level and below as compared to above the level of the organism. We term these intrinsic and emergent structures, respectively. Intrinsic structures are directly under selection, contributing to the overall performance (fitness) of the individual organism. Emergent structures involve interactions among aggregations of organisms and are not directly under selection. Given this distinction, we argue that while the functions of many intrinsic structures remain unknown, functions of emergent structures are the result of the aggregate of processes of individual organisms. We then provide a detailed and unified framework of the structure-function relationship for intrinsic structures to explore how their unknown functions can be defined. We provide examples of how these scalable definitions applied to intrinsic structures provide a framework to address questions on structure-function relationships that can be approached simultaneously from all subdisciplines of biology. We propose that this will produce a more holistic and robust understanding of how different biological functions are achieved across levels of biological organization.
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