Martin Hanczyc gives a fantastic TED talk on “The Line Between Life and Not-Life,” specifically highlighting his research into creating “protocells,” bundles of simple chemicals that exhibit complex, emergent, “life-like” behaviors.
Hanczyc’s protocells demonstrate behaviors that we commonly attribute to living systems – metabolism, movement, attraction to energy/food, interaction with other agents & the environment, and even replication. The videos of the protocells acting within their environment is simply incredible. I was amazed at the self-replication that seemed to spontaneously occur (at 9:17)!
At the close of the talk, Hanczyc comments on implications of this and other abiogenesis research has on the meaning of “life.” Instead of it being a clear-cut “black or white” dichotomy between life and not-life, there appears to be a spectrum. Hanczyc also presents the 2007 NRC report‘s view of “weird life” very different from our experience, which may exist elsewhere in the universe according to these emergent phenomena. Three criteria need to be met in order for alternative conceptions of life to exist:
- The system must be in disequilibrium (i.e.” it must not be dead”). There must be an energy inflow into the system which life can exploit and metabolize in order to sustain itself. For example, plants and our ecosystem rely on the sun as a catalyst for photosynthesis and .
- The system must be in liquid form. Molecules cannot be frozen solid, but most have sufficient energy to move and
- The system must be capable of forming and breaking chemical bonds. This is so “life” can transform resources into something more usable for its own maintenance and benefit.