Life is a multi-faceted concept that may refer to the ongoing process of which living things are a part; the period between the conception (the point at which the entity can be considered to be an individualized being) and death of an organism; the condition of an entity between conception and death that which makes a living thing alive.
Defining the concept of life
How can one tell when an entity is alive? It would be relatively straightforward to offer a practical set of guidelines if one's only concern were life on Earth as we know it (see biosphere), but as soon as one considers questions about life's origins on Earth, or the possibility of extraterrestrial life, or the concept of artificial life, it becomes clear that the question is fundamentally difficult and comparable in many respects to the problem of defining intelligence.
A conventional definition
Although there is no universal agreement on the definition of life, the generally accepted biological manifestations are that life exhibits the following phenomena:
- Organization - Living things are comprised of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.
- Metabolism - Metabolism produces energy by converting nonliving material into cellular components (synthesis) and decomposing organic matter (catalysis). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
- Growth - Growth results from a higher rate of synthesis than catalysis. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
- Adaptation - Adaption is the accommodation of a living organism to its environment. It is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the individual's heredity.
- Response to stimuli - A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism when touched to complex reactions involving all the senses of higher animals. Plants also respond to stimuli, but usually in ways very different from animals. A response is often expressed by motion: the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun or an animal chasing its prey.
- Reproduction - The division of one cell to form two new cells is reproduction. Usually the term is applied to the production of a new individual (either asexually, from a single parent organism, or sexually, from two differing parent organisms), although strictly speaking it also describes the production of new cells in the process of growth.
All life on Earth is based on the chemistry of carbon compounds. Some assert that this must be the case for all possible forms of life throughout the universe; others describe this position as 'carbon chauvinism'.
Exceptions to the conventional definition
It is important to note that life is a definition that applies at the level of species, so even though many individuals of any given species do not reproduce, possibly because they belong to specialised sterile castes (such as ant workers), these are still considered forms of life. One could say that the property of life is inherited; hence, sterile hybrid species such as the mule are considered life although not themselves capable of reproduction. It is also worth noting that non-reproducing individuals may still help the spread of their genes through such mechanisms as kin selection.
For similar reasons, viruses and aberrant prion proteins are often considered replicators rather than forms of life: they cannot reproduce without very specialised substrates such as host cells or proteins, respectively. However, most forms of life rely on foods produced by other species, or at least the specific chemistry of the Earth.
Viruses reproduce, flames grow, some software programs mutate and evolve, future software programs will probably evince (even high-order) behavior, machines move, and some form of proto-life consisting of metabolizing cells without the ability to reproduce presumably existed. Still, some would not call these entities alive. Generally, all six characteristics are required for a population to be considered a lifeform.
The systemic definition is that living things are self-organizing and autopoietic (self-producing). These objects are not to be confused with dissipative structures (e.g. fire). Variations of this definition include:
- Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana's definition of life as an autopoietic (self-producing), water based, lipid-protein bound, carbon metabolic, nucleic acid replicated, protein readout system
- Varela and Maturana's definition is also widely used by Lynn Margulis who (together with co-author Dorion Sagan), in answer to the question "What is life?" has answered bacteria (including cells).
- Stuart Kauffman's definition of life as an autonomous agent or a multi-agent system capable of reproducing itself or themselves, and of completing at least one thermodynamic work cycle
- A system converting entropy to negentropy, using flow of energy.
Descent with modification: a "useful" characteristic
A useful characteristic upon which to base a definition of life is that of descent with modification: the ability of a life form to produce offspring that are like its parent or parents, but with the possibility of some variation due to chance. Descent with modification is sufficient by itself to allow evolution, assuming that the variations in the offspring allow for differential survival. The study of this form of heritability is called genetics. In all known life forms (assuming prions are not counted as such), the genetic material is primarily DNA or the related molecule, RNA.
Origin of life
There is no truly "standard" model of the origin of life, but most currently accepted scientific models build in one way or another on the following discoveries, which are listed roughly in order of postulated emergence:
- Plausible pre-biotic conditions result in the creation of the basic small molecules of life. This was demonstrated in the Urey-Miller experiment.
- Phospholipids spontaneously form lipid bilayers, the basic structure of a cell membrane.
- Procedures for producing random RNA molecules can produce ribozymes, which are able to produce more of themselves under very specific conditions.
There are many different hypotheses regarding the path that might have been taken from simple organic molecules to protocells and metabolism. Many models fall into the "genes-first" category or the "metabolism-first" category, but a recent trend is the emergence of hybrid models that do not fit into either of these categories.
The possibility of extraterrestrial life
At this time, Earth is the only planet in the universe known by humans to support life. The question of whether life exists elsewhere in the universe remains open, but analyses such as the Drake equation have been used to estimate the probability of such life existing. There have been a number of claims of the discovery of life elsewhere in the universe, but none of these have yet survived scientific scrutiny.
Today, the closest that scientists have come to finding extraterrestrial life is fossil evidence of possible bacterial life on Mars (via the ALH84001 meteorite). Searches for extraterrestrial life are currently focusing on planets and moons believed to possess liquid water, at present or in the past. Recent evidence from the NASA rovers Spirit and Opportunity supports the theory that Mars once had surface water. See Life on Mars for further discussion.