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2.1: What is life, exactly?

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  • Clearly, if we are going to talk about biology, and organisms and cells and such, we have to define exactly what we mean by life. This raises a problem peculiar to biology as a science. We cannot define life generically because we know of only one type of life. We do not know whether this type of life is the only type of life possible or whether radically different forms of life exist elsewhere in the universe or even on Earth, in as yet to be recognized forms.

    While you might think that we know of many different types of life, from mushrooms to whales, from humans to the bacterial communities growing on the surfaces of our teeth (that is what dental plaque is, after all), we will discover that the closer we look the more these different “types of life” are in fact all versions of a common underlying motif, they represent versions of a single type of life. Based on their common chemistry, molecular composition, cellular structure, and the way that they encode hereditary information in the form of molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), all topics we will consider in depth later on, there is no reasonable doubt that all organisms are related, they are descended from a common ancestor.

    We cannot currently answer the question of whether the origin of life is a simple, likely, and predictable event given the conditions that existed on the Earth when life first arose, or whether it is an extremely rare and unlikely event. In the absence of empirical data, one can question whether scientists are acting scientifically or more as lobbyists for their own pet projects when they talk about doing astrobiology or speculating on when and where we will discover alien life forms. That said, asking seemingly silly questions, provided that empirically-based answers can be generated, has often been the critical driver of scientific progress. Consider, for example, current searches for life on Earth, almost all of which are based on what we already know about life. Specifically, most of the methods used rely on the fact that all known organisms use DNA to encode their genetic information; these methods would not be expected to recognize dramatically different types of life; they certainly would not detect organisms that used a non-DNA method to encode genetic information. If we could generate living systems de novo in the laboratory we would have a better understanding of what functions are necessary for life and how to look for possible “non-standard” organisms using better methods. It might even lead to the discovery of alternative forms of life right here on Earth, assuming they exist.28 That said, until someone manages to create or identify such non-standard forms of life, it seems quite reasonable to concentrate on the characteristics of life as we know them.

    So, let us start again in trying to produce a good definition, or given the fact that we know only of one version of life, a useful description of what we mean by life. First, the core units of life are organisms, which are individual living objects. From a structural and thermodynamic perspective, each organism is a bounded, non-equilibrium system that persists over time and, from a practical point of view, can produce one or more copies of itself. Even though organisms are composed of one or more cells, it is the organism that is the basic unit of life. It is the organism that produces new organisms.29

    Why the requirement for and emphasis on reproduction? This is basically a pragmatic criterion. Assume that a non-reproducing form of life was possible. A system that could not reproduce runs the risk of death (or perhaps better put, extinction) by accident. Over time, the probability of death for a single individual will approach one–that is, certainty.30 (→) In contrast, a system that can reproduce makes multiple copies of itself and so minimizes, although by no means eliminates, the chance of accidental extinction, the death of all of its descendants. We see the value of this strategy when we consider the history of life. Even though there have been a number of mass extinction events over the course of life’s history,31 organisms descended from a single common ancestor that appeared billions of years ago continue to survive and flourish.

    So what does the open nature of biological systems mean? Basically, organisms are able to import, in a controlled manner, energy and matter from outside of themselves and to export waste products into their environment.32 This implies that there is a distinct boundary between the organism and the rest of the world. All organisms have such a barrier (boundary) layer, as we will see. The basic barrier or organisms appears to be a homologous structure–that is, it was present in and inherited from their common ancestor. As we will see, the importation of energy, specifically energy that can be used to drive various cellular processes, is what enables the organism to maintain its non-equilibrium state and its dynamic structure. The boundary must be able to retain the valuable molecules generated, while at the same time allow waste products to leave. This ability to import matter and export waste enables the organism to grow and to reproduce. While we assume that you have at least a basic understanding of the laws of thermodynamics, we will review the core ideas in Chapter 5.

    We see evidence of the non-equilibrium nature of organisms most obviously in their ability of move, but it is important for all aspects of the living state. In particular, organisms use energy, captured from their environment, to drive a wide range of thermodynamically unfavorable chemical reactions. These reactions are driven by coupling them to thermodynamically favorable reactions. An organism that reaches thermodynamic equilibrium is a dead organism.

    There are examples of non-living, non-equilibrium systems that can “self-organize” or appear de novo. Hurricanes and tornados form spontaneously and then disperse. They use energy from their environment, which is then dispersed back into the environment, a process associated with increased entropy. These non-living systems differ from organisms in that they cannot produce offspring - they are the result of specific atmospheric conditions. They are individual entities, unrelated to one another, which do not and cannot evolve. Tornados and hurricanes that formed billions or millions of years ago would (if we could observe them) be similar to those that form today. Since we understand (more or less) the conditions that produce tornados and hurricanes, we can predict, fairly reliably, the conditions that will lead to their appearance and how they will behave once they form. In contrast, organisms present in the past were different from those that are alive today. The further into the past we go, the more different they appear. Some ancient organisms became extinct, some gave rise to the ancestors of current organisms. In contrast, modern tornados and hurricanes originate anew, they are not derived from parental storms.

    Question to answer and ponder:

    • Using the graph on risk of death as a function of age in humans and provide a plausible explanation for the shape of the graph.

    • Why are the points in the graph connected? Wouldn’t it make more sense to draw a direct line between them? Which better captures the reality of the situation?

    • What factors would influence the shape of the survival curve? How might the curve differ for different types of organisms?

    • How will the survival curve change if we compare very large and very small populations?

    • Make a model of what properties a biological boundary layer needs to possess. Using your current knowledge, how would you build such a boundary layer?


    28 The possibility of alternative microbial life on Earth: Signatures of a shadow biosphere:; Life on Earth but not as we know it: alien-life- on-earth

    29 In Chapter 4, we will consider how multicellular and social organisms come to be.

    30 Image modified from “risk of death” graph:

    31 Mass extinction events: other-extinct- creatures/mass-extinctions/

    32 In fact, this is how they manage to organize themselves, by exporting entropy. So be careful when people (or companies) claim to have a zero-waste policy, which is an impossibility according to the laws of thermodynamics that all systems obey.


    • Michael W. Klymkowsky (University of Colorado Boulder) and Melanie M. Cooper (Michigan State University) with significant contributions by Emina Begovic & some editorial assistance of Rebecca Klymkowsky.