In Reinventing the Sacred, theoretical biologist, Stuart Kaufman, who studies the origin of life on Earth, observes: “There is a world beyond physics. Given continuous spacetime, there are a second-order infinity of possible histories of the biosphere. We are agents who alter the unfolding of the universe.”
If general principles exist that can explain properties common to all life on Earth, scientists hypothesize, then they may be universal to all life, even life on other planets. If a “universal biology” exists, it would have important implications for the search for life beyond Earth, for engineering synthetic life in the lab, and for solving the origin of life, enabling scientists to predict properties of alien life.
In astrobiology, there is an increasing interest in whether life as we know it is a quirk of the particular evolutionary history of the Earth or, instead, if life might be governed by more general organizing principles. When we think of life on Earth, we might think of individual examples ranging from animals to bacteria. When astrobiologists study life, however, they have to consider not only individual organisms, but also ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole.
“To understand the general principles governing biology, we must understand how living systems organize across levels, not just within a given level,” says biologist Hyunju Kim.
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