Was Life an Inevitable Outcome of Thermodynamics?
A physicist demonstrates how life may be a predictable product of thermodynamics.
We often marvel that life on earth happened at all — there seems to be so much working against it. The luckiest of flukes. But in 2013, MIT physicist Jeremy England proposed a completely different, and shocking, idea: He suggested that life is an inevitable product of thermodynamics. Instead of being an exceptional, rare event, he told Quanta in 2014, the development of life is “as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” He’s been conducting a pair of tests of his theory since then, and his results, published in Physical Review Letters (PRL) and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), suggest he’s right.
Jeremy England (KATHERINE TAYLOR, QUANTA MAGAZINE)
It’s all about how inanimate atom structures capture and release energy. England’s been testing his own formula — which is based on accepted physics — predicting that a collection of atoms driven by external energy, such as the sun or some type of chemical fuel, and surrounded by heat, will often rearrange itself to absorb and dissipate increasingly more energy. Under certain conditions, the atoms will ultimately develop the heat-exchanging characteristics of living matter. And thus, he says, “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant.”
Key to his theory is the second law of thermodynamics part of which is the idea that a closed system such as the universe tends to grow more disordered over time, eventually becoming an undifferentiatable, entropic equilibrium. IFL Science uses a simple analogy to describe the effect:
Think of a pool of water with three color dyes dropped in it. Initially, they remain as separate dots far apart, but over time, the colors spread out, mix, and in the end, there’s just one single color. That’s the universe; the dots, in this case, can be pockets of biological life.
David Kaplan explains the second law and some new thoughts about it.
England, proposes that in systems with an external influence — such as, say, the sun offers the earth — energy imbalances can be so complex that atoms naturally rearrange themselves into architectures that can survive the chaos. The structures that they form to handle the energy may look a lot like the atomic structures of living things. Is this how life merges from chaos?
What the PRL Article Reports
The experiments, conducted by England with students Tal Kachman and Jeremy A. Owen were aimed at seeing if particles can, first of all, reorganize themselves in response to an external energy source. The scientists modeled a “toy” chemical environment of reacting Brownian particles that were periodically subjected to external energy drivers that forced chemical interactions to take place. (This process is called “forcing.) The researchers observed that particles eventually sought out the necessary chemical to construct a system structure resonating at the same frequency as the driver, thus facilitating more effective absorption of its energy.
What the PNAS Article Reports
In these more-complex experiments, England and Jordan Horowitz worked with computer simulations of a chemical network containing 25 chemicals. Running a series of simulations using random initial chemical concentrations, reaction rates, and “forcing landscapes” — sets of external energy sources and amounts — the researchers wanted to see what the final “fixed state” of the brews would be. Some settled into the expected entropic equilibrium, but other simulations, subjected to extreme, difficult environments, cycled rapidly through different arrangements in what looked very much like an attempt to arrive at the optimal structure for absorbing and emitting the energy to which they were exposed. In the paper’s abstract, England and Horowitz say this “might be recognized as examples of apparent fine-tuning.”
What Do the Experiments Mean?
The scenarios that England and his colleagues have simulated are, of course, simpler than those found in nature, falling far short of the relatively complex organism that is bacterium.
Escherichia coli rods
Still, it’s a stunning start. Says statistical physicist Michael Lässig of the PNAS paper, “This is obviously a pioneering study,” even if looks only at “a given set of rules on a relatively small system, so it’s maybe a bit early to say whether it generalizes. But the obvious interest is to ask what this means for life.”
England isn’t personally looking to get too far ahead of his results, either. “In the short term, I’m not saying this tells me a lot about what’s going in a biological system, nor even claiming that this is necessarily telling us where life as we know it came from,” he tells Quanta. He feels both problems constitute a “fraught mess” that, “I am inclined to steer clear of for now.”
But, according to engineer, physicist, and microbiologist Rahul Sarpeshkar, “What Jeremy is showing is that as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune.” This is a big deal all by itself. “But, ”Sarpeshkar adds, “this is about how did life first arise, perhaps — how do you get order from nothing.”
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If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
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