(Roughly) Daily

That’s life…

 Virus (source: Flickr/Razza Mathadsa)

Writing in The Scientist, Professor Edward N. Trifonov tackles the most fundamental of questions:

The definition of life is as enormous a problem as the phenomenon of life itself. One could easily collect from the literature more than 100 different definitions, none satisfactory enough to be broadly accepted. What should the definition contain, to be suitable for all varieties of observable life? Humans, animals, plants, microorganisms. Do viruses also belong to life?

There are two tendencies in the attempts to define life. One is to formulate an all-inclusive definition, accommodating life’s attributes and manifestations from all levels of complexity. Another tendency is to reduce the attributes to only those which are common to all forms of life. But we do not know what would be the “simplissimus” from which everything, probably, started…

Spoiler alert!  In “What is Life?” he presses down and further down the hierarchy of scale and process to suggest that “The border between life and nonlife may, actually, be placed anywhere within the realm of the abiotic processes.” (For those distant from their biology classes: “abiotic.”) Trifonov’s conclusion is fascinating– at once, inspiring and humbling:

… life never stopped emerging, starting some 4 billion years ago with replicating RNA, and continuing to this day within the genomes of every living organism.


As we revisit Walt Whitman, we might send germinating birthday greetings to botanist Charles Joseph Chamberlain; he was born on this date in 1863.  Chamberlain was a specialist in the cycad genera (palmlike, cone-bearing plants).  His work laid the foundation for understanding the life histories, distribution, ecology, and diversity of cycads (and other primitive seed plants), postulated a course of evolutionary development for the spermatophyte (seed plant) ovule and embryo, and led to speculation about a cycad origin for angiosperms (flowering plants).


Written by LW

February 23, 2012 at 1:01 am

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