Sitting on the dock on the bay….

Lillie and Marine Resource Facility, Early Morning Woods Hole

Eel Pond, in the foreground is usually glassy first thing in the morning and today is no exception. I’ve got some time before heading to a lecture on the metabolism of the Malaria parasite to ponder the question of why we study biology.

But wait…

Surely the larger question is what is the thing we call “life”? Here on Earth, at least, it’s a process that’s dependent on Carbon (among a few other elements), the consumption of energy (either directly from the Sun, from carbon-based sugars, or sometimes from the geothermal energy present in deep ocean vents). The information for life is encoded in polymers of nucleic acids and that information is read out into proteins made of amino acid building blocks. These proteins can be either used to build the structure of life forms or to act as chemical catalysts. The amino acids themselves are built up by energy consumption in the form of metabolism.

But life begins and ends all without any sudden phase change in the stuff of life. Yes, the building blocks are recycled, but not immediately upon death. Neither is it mandatory that all the processes of life cease upon the death of a living thing.

Which brings us back to this larger question of defining life. I suppose at one level, it’s a local decrease in entropy and hence a temporary reprieve from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but there are lots of such things in the Universe that we don’t normally think of as alive. And on this Biosphere, it’s defined within the constraints of a special carbon-based metabolism and XNA-genetics, but it needn’t be elsewhere.

But it surely is compelling and that’s what makes a place like the MBL in Woods Hole so very important.