What is life?? Let’s take a closer look shall we…
Once upon a time, not too long ago, I had the great pleasure of spending time with Dr Alan Rayner, a first rate scientist and former President of the British Mycological Society. Alan kindly contributed many insights to my book The Illusion of Separation, about how nature really works once we see beyond our acculturation.
This blog post is a guest post jointly written by Alan Rayner (author of NaturesScope) and Doug Marman (author of Lenses of Perception)
In March 2016, a group of biologists led by Craig Venter announced the creation of ‘independently’ living cells with the smallest genome. Their announcement was hailed as a milestone. The big lesson learned by the biologists is that no one can explain why almost one-third of the genes are needed for survival. However, hidden in the subtext of this study, we believe, is an even more important lesson: The most essential ingredient of life may not actually be genes or a substance of any kind, but rather a relationship.
In the experiment, the biologists started with bacteria that had the smallest genomes they could find. They then began deactivating genes one at a time, to see which ones were needed for survival. If the bacteria lived and kept reproducing, those genes weren’t necessary and were removed. After years of work, the genome was reduced to half its original size. Every remaining gene has been tested. None can be eliminated. Their goal is now to identify the role of the mystery genes. They hope this will give them a blueprint of what is needed for living cells to survive as independent entities.
But there’s more to the story. It turns out that many of the “unnecessary” genes could only be deleted after supplying the petri dish with key nutrients and eliminating potential dangers. As a result, the new cells can no longer survive in the wild because they’ve lost the ability to hunt for food and avoid threats.
Image by: Tom Deerinck and Mark Ellisman of the National Center for Imaging and Microscopy Research at the University of California at San Diego.
Is it fair to say that these are independently living cells? Don’t they need the biologists to feed them and remove their wastes? This is where the story gets interesting.
You see, the genomes of these cells may be tiny compared to other single-celled organisms, but they are still 200 times larger than the genomes of simple viruses. So they aren’t even close to the littlest genomes.
Viruses, however, are not considered independent life forms because they can’t survive outside a host cell. They need a host in which to live, and they need the genome of the host to reproduce. That’s why the biologists wanted to study organisms that live on their own. But do they? Is true independent living even possible?
All organisms depend on their environment for energy, carbon, and mineral nutrients to grow and reproduce. No plant, animal, or microbe can survive without this supply. Cutting them off leaves them as inactive as a car without fuel. All biologists know this. But if we consider the implications of this deeply, it frames the question of life in a new way and it opens the door to a new explanation for how biological life may have emerged.
For example, it shows that treating organisms as if they are self-contained entities, isolated from their neighborhood, is a profound mistake because life doesn’t belong to individuals alone. Life is a relationship between creatures and their environment.
If this is right, then finding which genes are necessary for survival will not in itself explain how life works, because genes aren’t the cause.
Trees create habitats that team with life. Painting by Alan Rayner, from Mycological Research, 102, 1441-1449.
Look at what happens when DNA is removed from cells. The cells can continue living for a while, but the DNA stops participating in life. It becomes an inactive chemical compound. If DNA activates when inside a cell, does this mean that DNA is then alive?
This doesn’t sound right if we think of life as something that belongs to individuals. Clearly DNA does not possess life by itself. But if life is a relationship between a life form and the world it is nourished by, then yes, DNA is involved in life when inside a cell.
This offers a new solution to the debate over viruses: Are they living organisms or just bits of inactive genetic material that activate when they’re in the right cells? Viruses show no signs of life outside of a host cell. But they truly do spring into life-as-a-relationship inside cells.
Seeds act the same way. If they land on fallow ground with no water, they remain dormant. They need a habitat that welcomes them, to germinate and develop.
If genes become alive when they’re involved in the life of a living cell, the same can be said for all the other constituents of cellular life, not least the proteins whose two-way relationship with DNA is so central.
This opens a new window on the origin of life. Every day, biologists see the liveliness of enzymes, as they work for the benefit of the cells they belong to, suggesting that life reaches all the way down to molecules and atoms, as long as they’re in the right environment.
This shifts the puzzle of life to a new question: How do molecules act in such a directed way, as if they are following a plan? Physics and chemistry alone can’t explain it.
Some scientists propose that self-organizing, self-catalytic chemistry may be the key to explaining the origin of life, but this doesn’t get at the real problem. It doesn’t tell us how molecular reactions alone could ever create something with the ability to preserve life, find food, and avoid threats.
But what if cells move our muscles and keep our hearts pumping because they are devoted to us? We would then be the source of the plan they are following. The reason they dedicate themselves to us is because this is the relationship that their lives depend on. If we die, they die. We are just as much in need of our cells and neurons to live. Living is a shared experience.
Looking at life this way seems enigmatic. It brings to mind the paradox of the chicken and the egg. In this case we have to ask: Which comes first, a nourishing environment or the forms that spring into life and embody it? But this isn’t a paradox, because relationships don’t need cause-and-effect. They are mutual. Once we see life as a relationship, the puzzle is solved. Eggs and chicken need each other. They can’t live independently.
This also resolves the mind-body question that has been hounding philosophers for centuries: How do we control our bodies? We just answered that. Our cells do all the work. They move our bodies toward food, away from threats, and into the adventure of life around us, because our life is their world. We depend on each other. Life is only possible when mind and body work together.
Can we explain how this works scientifically? Yes, we only need to turn to quantum mechanics. We find the same principles at work in the subatomic world. There we see that the force of attraction that holds quarks together and forms the bodies of protons emerges from relationships between quarks. Invisible exchanges between quarks create a shared attraction, a bond. The quarks then stop moving as independent particles. They start spinning as one.
Doesn’t this sound like cells acting together as one body? And doesn’t the force of attraction between quarks remind us of the attraction we feel in relationships? Something invisible passes between us and others, pulling us together. Our lives then move in synchrony with each other.
This is the nature of relationships. They’re delicate, like the meaning of a poem hidden between its lines. You can’t pull them apart to see what makes them tick. Dissecting organisms will never explain this mystery. It will never reveal the secret because the relationship is fundamental.
Living things all have bodies that are dynamic and permeable for a reason: They’re continually sharing and exchanging with the environment. It’s an amazing joint venture, a wonderful dance of give and take that shapes organisms and the world around them. This is what makes life so remarkable.
Looking at it this way, the question—what is life—suddenly takes on a radical new meaning.
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