What is life?  It’s software that runs biological robots, says a leading geneticist.

In 1943, before the genetic revolution, physicist Erwin Schrödinger spoke at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland) on the subject, “What Is Life?”  It was unusual for a physicist to address a biological subject.  Approaching life in physical terms, Schrödinger realized that life needs to store information.  By its nature, biological information has to be aperiodic (i.e., non-repeating) yet stable, like a crystal.  This led him to ponder the possible future discovery of an aperiodic, crystalline “genetic code” as a conveyor of biological information.

Schrödinger’s prescient insight occurred before the computer revolution, and a decade before Watson and Crick’s elucidation of the structure of DNA.  It not only inspired many to view life through a physical lens, it also encouraged more physicists and chemists to ask biological questions.  Those questions presaged the discovery of an actual genetic code written in DNA, on informational macromolecules.  As we know, that discovery led to a genetic revolution that has continued unabated to the present day of genetic engineering.

Claire O’Connell used this background for her report in New Scientist on the current meetings at Trinity that are ending today (July 15).  In Schrödinger’s footsteps, Craig Venter took the stage at Trinity to discuss the same question, “What Is Life?”  O’Connell sees this as “passing the baton” from one influential scientist to another; Venter’s name will be familiar to many, not only as the entrepreneur who raced the US government’s Human Genome Project to the finish line, but as the charismatic TED showman who has wowed large audiences by boasting his team’s successful creation of the first synthetic cell whose parents are a computer.  (Actually, Venter plagiarized existing life; see 5/22/2010 and 6/2/2010).

Venter’s description at the meeting underscores how far we have come in our conception of the nature of life.  A brief history: for centuries, life was seen as fundamentally different from non-life.  The synthesis of urea in 1828 by Wöhler was a first bombshell to old thinking; scientists began to see an overlap between organic chemistry and regular chemistry….

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