A novel approach to the question of life’s origin, proposed by two Arizona State University scientists
— Paul Davies, an ASU Regents’ Professor and director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Sara Walker, a NASA post-doctoral fellow at the Beyond Center — in an open-access Journal of the Royal Society Interface paper, attempts to dramatically redefine the problem.
The authors shift attention from the “hardware” — the chemical basis of life — to the “software” — its information content. They suggest that the crucial distinction between non-life and life is the way living organisms manage the information flowing through the system.
“We propose that the transition from non-life to life is unique and definable,” said Davies. “We suggest that life may be characterized by its distinctive and active use of information, thus providing a roadmap to identify rigorous criteria for the emergence of life. This is in sharp contrast to a century of thought in which the transition to life has been cast as a problem of chemistry, with the goal of identifying a plausible reaction pathway from chemical mixtures to a living entity.”
“Chemical based approaches,” Walker said, “have stalled at a very early stage of chemical complexity — very far from anything we would consider ‘alive.’ More seriously they suffer from conceptual shortcomings in that they fail to distinguish between chemistry and biology.”
“To a physicist or chemist life seems like ‘magic matter,’” Davies explained. “It behaves in extraordinary ways that are unmatched in any other complex physical or chemical system. Such lifelike properties include autonomy, adaptability and goal-oriented behavior — the ability to harness chemical reactions to enact a pre-programmed agenda, rather than being a slave to those reactions.