Posted in Book Review, Philosophy, Science

Beyond “What is Life?”

what is life gambar

Many of us may ask “What is life, really?”

All living things made up from cells, and cells made up practically from “dead” matters.

How can dead matters turn into living things? What are the processes inside of it? The key lies in some information that processed inside one part of the cells, which is DNA. As the living things live, the DNA processes all the genetic information needed for cells to grow until a certain time. They produce proteins, they build everything that every cell needed to grow.

All cells, we can say, programmed themselves to be “dead” at some point. Thermodynamically, as they grow, cells tend to be more chaotic in time. As you grow old, you will see a wrinkle, white hair and so on. This is natural things that happen in living things, but does that means living things is the same as “life” itself? Is life the aggregate of all reaction processes that are taking place inside of cells?

The cycle continues as they continue to breed so that their species do not fall into extinction. To avoid losing track of information, new entity succeeded their predecessors. The information (genetic code.red) then carried through generations. In a way, life is just a lot of stuff that carries genetic information around. So is DNA life then? DNA itself is certainly a very complex molecule, but it can’t do anything by itself.

Then viruses added problems. We are not very sure if they can count as living things or dead. It depends on the condition in which they are inside a host or not. There are some viruses that can re-animate the dead cells, well it blurred the line, again.

Furthermore, there are mitochondria, the “power plant” of most complex cells and were previously free-living bacteria that entered a partnership with bigger cells. They still have their DNA and can multiply, but they are not alive anymore! They traded their own life for the survival of their DNA. Maybe, life is information that manages to ensure its continued existence, or it is not?

One person who thought deeply about it was the Quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger. He really gives his thought on what is going on in our cells, although his effort in this biology-related matter, some (biologist.red) says, unheard or plays an insignificant role at some point.

Does Quantum mechanics which underpin many physics and chemistry phenomenon also play a role inside living organism?

****

Probably most of us have probably heard of quantum mechanics or quantum physics. Quantum mechanics describes a reality on the tiniest scales; the world in which particles can exist in two or more places at once spread themselves in a wave-like behavior, tunnel through impenetrable walls and so forth. A really different world!

Over a century, this bizarre description has been part of all our lives. The mathematical formulation was completed in mid-1920’s. Quantum mechanics already describing how the electrons arrange themselves within atoms. By doing so it underpins the whole chemistry, material science, and electronics; we can say that it is the very essence of most technological advances of the past half-century.

If Quantum mechanics can describe the behavior of the atoms with all their weirdness, then why aren’t all the objects around us, including humans (which made up of atoms) also able to be in two places at once, and so forth? One obvious difference is that the Quantum world does apply to single particles consisting of just a handful atoms.

Quantum effects were certainly unexpected to play any role inside of living cells. Yet, 70 years ago, Nobel-prize winning physicist and Quantum pioneer, Erwin Schrödinger suggested that deep down, some aspects of biology must be based on the rules and orderly world of quantum mechanics. His book inspired a generation of scientists. Probably we have heard his journey in exploring the quantum world, but only a few knew he was also tackled one of the biggest questions: “What is Life?”

**

DUBLIN. In the first Friday of February 1943, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger give a lecture with an intriguing title: “What is Life?”

The interest was so great that the lecture had to be repeated on the following Monday. On three consecutive Fridays, 56-year-old Schrödinger walked into the Fritzgerald Building lecture theater to give his talks, in which he explored the relationship between quantum physics and recent discovery in biology.

But what about life? What is the nature of it? Schrödinger was amazed by the fact that chromosomes are accurately duplicated during cell division (mitosis) and during the creation of sex cells (meiosis).

He pointed out that heredity depends on molecules made of comparatively few particles – certainly too few to benefit from the order from disorder rules of thermodynamics. But life was clearly in order. Why?

For biologists, the apparent unchanging characteristic of genes was simply a fact. But for Schrödinger, it’s a “problem”. He calculated that each gene might be composed of only 1000 atoms. Thus, genes should be continuously shimmering and altering because the fundamental laws of physics and chemistry are statistical; although atoms overall tend to behave consistently, an individual atom can behave in a way that contradicts these laws. For most objects we encounter, this probably doesn’t matter. Most of them don’t behave in unpredictable ways.

If genes are made only a few hundred atoms, they should display that uncertain behavior, and they should not remain constant over the generations. And yet, the experiments showed that mutations occur quite rarely!

The challenge was to explain how genes act lawfully and cause organisms to behave lawfully, while being composed only a few number of atoms, a significant proportion of which may be behaving unlawfully. He then suggested that life was based on a novel physical principle whereas its macroscopic order is a reflection of quantum level order, rather than the molecular disorder that characterizes the inanimate world. He coined this as “order from order”.

Schrödinger then argued that chromosomes “contain, in some kind of code-script, the entire pattern of the individual’s future development and of its functioning in the mature state.” This was the very first time anyone clearly suggested genes might contain, or even simply could be, “a code-script”.

Years to come, that code-script like was founded. It is the DNA. James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins (The founders) – all claimed that Schrödinger’s “What is Life?” played an important role in their personal journeys toward their work on finding the structure of DNA.

**

Entering the new realm of science: Quantum Biology

Theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili and molecular geneticist Johnjoe McFadden have been discussing physics and chemistry phenomenon that might affect biology in their published book entitled Life on the Edge: The Coming Age of Quantum Biology. As the books said, Quantum Biology is about “looking for non-trivial, the counter-intuitive ideas in Quantum mechanics and to see if they do indeed play an important role in describing the processes of life.”

Life on the edge - quantum biology

The first question raised to build a new foundation for Quantum Biology is: Does quantum mechanics play a role inside living organism?

Up until a decade ago, most biologists would have disagreed that quantum physics plays a role inside living organism. But as the scientists, particularly biologist probes the dynamics of smaller systems – even individual atoms and molecules inside living cells, the sign of quantum mechanical behavior in the building blocks of life are becoming increasingly apparent.

There are certain specific behaviors in living organism that required quantum mechanics to be explained. For example, the European robin, Erithacus rubecula. Every year, around this time (autumn), thousands of European robins escape the oncoming harsh Scandinavian winter and head south to the warmer Mediterranean coasts. How they find their way is one of the wonders of the natural world. Unlike many other species, they do not rely on landmarks, ocean currents, a position of the sun or a built-in star map. They are using a remarkable navigation sense. They are able to detect tiny variations in the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field. They also seem to be able to “see” the Earth’s magnetic field! The birds’ built-in compass appears to make use of one of the strangest features of quantum mechanics.

Over the past few years, the European robin and its quantum “sixth sense”, has emerged as the pin-up for a new field of research. One that brings altogether the complex, wonderful yet messy living world and the strange orderly world of atoms and elementary particles in a collision of disciplines that is astonishing. It’s Quantum Biology!

Another example is Enzymes, the workhorses of life. They speed up chemical reactions so that processes proceed in seconds inside living cells. How they accelerate chemical reactions? Experiments over the years have shown that enzymes make use of quantum tunneling to accelerate biochemical reactions. The enzyme encourages electrons and protons to vanish from one position in a biomolecule and instantly reappear in another, without passing through the gap. A kind of teleportation.

Another vital process in the biology is photosynthesis. Many argue that it is the most important biochemical reaction on the earth. The processes essentially happens when light energy captured by chlorophyll molecule and converted into chemical energy in which harnessed to fix carbon dioxide and turn it into plant matter. The process whereby this light energy is transported has long been a puzzle because of its efficiency. The question then, how?

In 2007 in California, an experiment carried out and probed what was going on by firing short bursts of laser light at photosynthetic complexes. Then it was revealed that the energy packet performing a neat quantum trick. It behaves quantum mechanically, like a spread-out wave, and samples all possible routes at once to find the quickest way.

All these quantum effects have come as a surprise to most scientists who believed that the quantum mechanics only applied in the microscopic world. All delicate quantum properties were thought to vanish in bigger objects, such as living cells. So how does life manage its quantum trickery?

Rather than avoiding molecular storms, recent research suggests that life embraces them. Just as Schrödinger predicted, life seems to be balanced on the boundary between this sensible everyday world and the weird yet wonderful quantum world.

This thought gathers all quantum physicist, biochemist, molecular biologist, and all related inter-disciplinary field for joining the new-breed, a brand of new emerging science: Quantum Biology.

Perhaps, although Quantum Biology is still speculative, it may explain life’s biggest questions: “What is life?”

What is Life then? 

Sources:
1. Discover: Science for the curious September 2015 edition page 60
2. Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology by Jim Al-Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden
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Philanthropic Muslim Enthusiast, Engaging in pursuit of knowledge and creativity, love to read books (any kind of books)

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