The secret of Life

Few people have ever been convinced they had found the Secret of Life. And those who were convinced of it have often not remained so for very long. Robert Brown (1773-1858), for example, thought he had found it when he observed pollen grains in water under a microscope and saw them moving independently of each other. He interpreted it as evidence of an indivisible unit of life, capable of forming new flowers. It later emerged that any inorganic matter can show the same sort of random motion, now termed Brownian motion.

Francis Crick (1916-2004) announced in 1953, together with James Watson (1928-), that he had found the secret. He was referring to the structure of DNA, the landmark discovery with which his name will always be connected. Many people erroneously credit him for something else also: the discovery of the genetic code. In fact, it was the brilliant physicist George Gamow (1904-1968) who was first to realise that the four-base variations of the DNA molecule constitute a code.

But are we there yet?

Any living organism, even the simplest bacterium, performs innumerable complex activities that cannot possibly be deduced from the genetic sequence alone. We have found the main repository of information, but we are still fumbling in the dark when it comes to the principles for deciding what information to read, and when, and why.

Even the simplest units of life exhibit extremely robust and well-regulated behavior. A protozoan looking for food decides to go in one direction, and not the other. A cell of a slime mold decides to sacrifice itself for the greater good of the community. These actions are governed by a vast network of interconnecting signaling mediators, most of them proteins.

Scientists working on these networks have, for the most part, a mental model of the cell resembling a machine composed of cog-wheels. Endless hours are spent trying to find out which wheel grabs on to which. Huge tabulations are made with arrows indicating either stimulation or inhibition of one protein on another.

These models are drawn in the face of our massive understanding that biological systems tend to be non-linear and dynamic. If I poke the system gently and upset one of the signaling molecules, it is for the most part impossible to tell what changes will follow in the complex system.

At the same time, this very complexity gives rise to new phenomena on a system level. Robustness and stability towards certain stimuli are coupled with remarkable adaptability to others. Higher-order conformity to laws of behavior appear.

The biological system takes information and creates meaning. We do not know how.

This is the next frontier, and possibly the final one, in our quest for the secret of life.


4 Responses to The secret of Life

  1. J Pettersson says:

    Congrats to the new blog.. im looking forward to more insights and new ideas…

    How does the cat know how to be a cat? Hanging only with humans…. .. Is it determined by the avaliable causes of action to a Life in catshape, and the neurological stimuli tho to trail and error… building up a cathood out of what feels good and stimulating, and not repeating worse choises of behaviour. Or is a mental connection to being a cat possible..? a field within and around a morphic unit which organizes its characteristic structure and pattern of activity.. =)

  2. M.o.M. says:

    My favourite definition of psychology: the science of how complex organisms process information (and use it to guide behaviour). Since our own behaviour is generated at the cellular level, this must be a relevant level of analysis… What if our cells are much more independent than we believe, instead of being relatively uninteresting cogs that just do the work…
    Looking forward to following your blog!

  3. Hjalmar says:

    This is certainly outside my area of expertise, but I have seen it suggested quite commonly that biology exhibits certain traits that seem to suggest that it is somehow using non-newtonian processes, i.e. quantum physics.

    A couple of samples (simply of google):

    Discovery magazine writes:

    “On the face of things, quantum mechanics and the biological sciences do not mix. Biology focuses on larger-scale processes, from molecular interactions between proteins and DNA up to the behavior of organisms as a whole; quantum mechanics describes the often-strange nature of electrons, protons, muons and quarks–the smallest of the small…

    Yet new experiments keep finding quantum processes at play in biological systems… With the advent of powerful new tools like femtosecond (10-15 second) lasers and nanoscale-precision positioning, life’s quantum dance is finally coming into view.”

    “Using powerful supercomputers to analyze the interplay of the dozens of electrons that whirl in clouds about these molecules, a team of physicists led by Purdue’s Jorge H. Rodriguez has found that the quantum property of electrons called “spin” needs to be considered to obtain a complete and fundamental picture of how many biochemical reactions take place. In particular, a class of metal-based proteins that includes hemoglobin and chlorophyll, and their reactions in plants and animals, can be better understood with the technique.”

    An answer to your questions seems to already have been suggested by some physists:

    “The known facts of quantum physics and biology strongly suggest the following hypotheses: atoms and the fundamental particles have a rudimentary degree of consciousness, volition, or self-activity; the basic features of quantum mechanics are a result of this fact; the quantum mechanical wave properties of matter are actually the conscious properties of matter; and living organisms are a direct result of these properties of matter (From a paper that’s some 30 years old,

    Now, as I said, I do not posses the necessary skills to evaluate these claims, but to the layman they do seem to be potentially important, and if they are, it would certainly diminish our chances of finding an adequate answer to the question about life, given that quantum physics itself is a process that’s not understood well, or some would say, at all.

    Do you believe this to be, as Richard Feynman would have said, cargo cult science? And even if we have reason to believe it is, can you think of how one migt prove or disprove that such subtle processes are involved?

    Again, my lack of knowledge is limiting my ability to evaluate the arguments, but with a commonsense approach one might expect that we have, by now, looked in all the cells drawers, and even under the bed, so to speak, and that whatever we are looking for will not be found so easily? This would surely make the arguments for non-newtonian processes more plausible.

    I hope these thoughts may have some utility for you!


  4. evolvingideas says:

    Yes, it’s an interesting thought. I believe it originates from Roger Penrose, the mathematician who did a lot of work with Stephen Hawking. But as far as I am aware there is no tangible evidence, only speculation. It’s not cargo cult science, just legitimate ideas that are very difficult to test.

    We have looked at the cell’s drawers for a very long time now, and we know precisely what sort of wood they are made out of and what number they have in the IKEA catalogue. But we still don’t know why the things get put into the drawers in the precise way that the do. If I may stretch the analogy! 🙂

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