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The idea that life boils down to chemistry is being usurped by a much more ambitious idea, says two of the world's leading biophysicists.

In the history of science, there are many examples of simple changes in perspective that lead to profound insights into the nature of the cosmos. The invention of the telescope is perhaps one example. Another is the realisation that chemical energy, thermodynamic energy, kinetic energy and the like are all manifestations of the same stuff. You can surely supply your own favourite instances here.

One of the more important examples in 20th centruy science is that biology is the result of evolution, not the other way round. By that way if thinking, evolution is a process, an algorithm even; albeit one with unimaginable power. Exploit evolution and there is little you cannot achieve.

In recent years, computer scientists have begun to exploit evolution's amazing power. One thing they have experienced time and time again is evolution's blind progress. Put a genetic algorithm to work and it will explore the evolutionary landscape, looking for local minima. When it finds one, there is no knowing whether it is the best possible solution of whether it sits within touching distance of an evolutionary abyss that represents a solution of an entirely different order of magnitude.

That hints at the possibility that life as it has evolved on Earth is but a local minima in a vast landscape of evolutionary possibilities. If that's the case, biologists are studying a pitifully small fraction of something bigger. Much bigger.

Today, we get an important insight into this state of affairs thanks to a fascinating paper by Nigel Goldenfeld and Carl Woese at the University of Illinois. Goldenfeld is a physicist by training while Woese, also a physicist, is one of the great revolutionary figures in biology. In the 1970s, he defined a new kingdom of life, the Archae, and developed a theory of the origin of life called the RNA world hypothesis, which has gained much fame or notoriety depending on your viewpoint.

Together they suggest that biologists need to think about their field in a radical new way: as a branch of condensed matter physics. Their basic conjecture is that life is an emergent phenomena that occurs in systems that are far out of equilibrium. If you accept this premise, then two questions immediately arise: what laws describe such systems and how are we to get at them.

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Category: Science