What is Life, Part II

So, here we continue with the “what is life” issue. A general definition that’s able to distinguish all imaginable living objects from the diversity of non-living objects remains elusive. Even today, we know relatively little about the cellular life on Earth. It’s been said that a shovel full of soil would contain hundreds of microbial species that are unknown to science. That’s not to mention the vast range of plausible non-cellular life forms that might be discovered elsewhere in the universe.

I have to conclude that endorsing any sweeping definition of life based on so little knowledge is like trying to define music after listening to a single Elvis Presley song.

Top-Down and Bottom-Up

So, what do we do? As you can imagine, scientists crave a definition of life. Such a definition remains elusive, but they adopted two complimentary approaches in their efforts to distinguish that which is alive from that which is not. On the one hand, many scientists have adopted the top-down approach. Top-down refers to the effort to scrutinize all modern living organisms and fossil entities to identify the most primitive forms that are or were alive. It turns out that primitive microbes and ancient fossils have the potential to provide relevant clues about life’s early chemistry.

I must say that I find this top-down strategy inherently limited. At least so far, all known life forms are based on biochemical sophisticated cells containing complex molecules, including DNA and proteins. Any definition of life based on top-down research is limited to what appears to be modern biochemistry.

By contrast, a small but determinate army of investigators adopt the so-called bottom-up approach. The principal objective of bottom-up researchers is to device laboratory experiments to mimic the emergent chemical process of environments in the ancient Earth. Ultimately, the bottom-up goal is to synthesize a self-reproducing chemical system in the laboratory. That’s an effort that might help clarify the ancient transition from non-life to life.

You might think that all bottom-up researchers hold a common view of what would constitute the first synthetic life form, but research actually leads to an amusing range of diverging opinions regarding what’s alive. Each scientist has a tendency to define life primarily in terms of his or her own chosen chemical or biological specialty. One notable group focuses on the origin of cell membranes. To them, life began when the first encapsulating membrane appeared.

Other well respected research teams study the emergence of metabolic cycles. Those are the process by which cells gather and use atoms and energy. Naturally, for them, the origin of life coincided with the origin of metabolism. Lots of other groups investigate the origin of primordial RNA, which many experts consider to be the first genetic material. For them, the origin of RNA is equivalent to the origin of life.

There are many other workers who focus on viruses, minerals or even artificial intelligence; and each researcher advocates his own definition of what constitutes life.

NASA’a Definition

Into this mix, quite a few philosophers, theologians and science fiction writers have injected a variety of more abstract views and speculations on the possible phenomena that might said to be alive. The possibilities seem endless: counscious clouds in space, high temperature silicate minerals, a self aware internet. Such proposals sound at times farfetched, but there is so much we don’t know.

Consequently, the scientific community, with the support of NASA and other governmental agencies, holds regular meetings to explore the definition of life. After all, if one of NASA’s primary missions is to look for life on other worlds, then we’d better have a clear definition for planning future missions. It’s amazing how the “what is life” question sparks passionate arguments.

Gerald Joyce, a biologist working at the Scripps Research Institute, developed a widely accepted definition for life, at least in the context of NASA’s space exploration. He concluded that “life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution”.

According to this opinion, life incorporates three distinctive characteristics. First, all life forms must be chemical systems. That means that computer programs or robots are not alive. The second characteristic is that life grows and sustains itself by gathering energy and atoms from its surroundings. That’s the essence of metabolism. Finally, all living entities must display some sort of variation. According to the concepts of Darwinian evolution, natural selection of more fit individuals inevitably leads to evolution and the emergence of more complex entities. A system that does not have the potential to evolve does not fit this definition of life.

There’s still so much we don’t know, but this NASA inspired definition is probably as general, useful and concise as anyone is likely to come up with, at least until we discover more about what’s actually out there.

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