Computers are organized into hardware and software. Using a theoretical approach to identify patterns in gene expression in a variety of species, organs, and cell types, we found that biological systems similarly are comprised of a relatively unchanging hardware-like gene pattern. Orthogonal patterns of software-like transcripts vary greatly, even among tumors of the same type from different individuals. Two distinguishable classes could be identified within the hardware-like component: those transcripts that are highly expressed and stable and an adaptable subset with lower expression that respond to external stimuli. Importantly, we demonstrate that this structure is conserved across organisms. Deletions of transcripts from the highly stable core are predicted to result in cell mortality. The approach provides a conceptual thermodynamic-like framework for the analysis of gene-expression levels and networks and their variations in diseased cells.