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What part of ‘Life’ would you like to explore?



Life (cf. biota) is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have self-sustaining biological processes ("alive," "living"), from those which do not—either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as "inanimate."


In biology, the science that studies living organisms, "life" is the condition which distinguishes active organisms from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, functional activity and the continual change preceding death.  A diverse array of living organisms (life forms) can be found in the biosphere on Earth, and properties common to these organisms—plants, animals, fungi, protists, archaea, and bacteria — are a carbon- and water-based cellular form with complex organization and heritable genetic information. Living organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations. More complex living organisms can communicate through various means.


Waitakere Phia

Life on a rocky peak in the Waitakere Ranges


In philosophy and religion, the conception and nature of life varies, and offer interpretations in the frameworks of existence and consciousness, and touch on many other related issues, such as, ontology, value, life stance, purpose, conceptions of God, the soul and the afterlife.





It is still a challenge for scientists and philosophers to define life in unequivocal terms.  Any definition must be sufficiently broad to encompass all life with which we are familiar, and it should be sufficiently general that, with it, scientists would not miss life that may be fundamentally different from earthly life.


In order to answer the question ‘What is life?’ some scientists have recently proposed that a general Living systems theory is required.  Such general theory, arising out of the biological sciences, attempts to map general principles for how all living systems work. Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into component parts, a general living systems theory explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of relationship.




Since there is no unequivocal definition of life, the consensus is to attempt to describe it. Therefore, life is a characteristic of organisms that exhibit all or most of the following phenomena:

1.    Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature.

2.    Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells, which are the basic units of life.

3.    Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.

4.    Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.

5.    Adaptation: The ability to change over a period of time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity as well as the composition of metabolized substances, and external factors present.

6.    Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of higher animals. A response is often expressed by motion, for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism) and by chemotaxis.

7.    Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms either asexually, from a single parent organism, or sexually, from at least two parent organisms.




To reflect the minimum phenomena required, some have proposed other biological definitions of life:


rain forest trees

Plant Life


herds of zebra

Herds of zebra and impala gathering on the Masai Mara plain


grand prismatic spring

An aerial photo of microbial mats around the Grand Prismatic Spring of Yellowstone National Park


1.    Living things are systems that tend to respond to changes in their environment, and inside themselves, in such a way as to promote their own continuation.

2.    A network of inferior negative feedbacks (regulatory mechanisms) subordinated to a superior positive feedback (potential of expansion, reproduction).

3.    A systemic definition of life is that living things are self-organizing and autopoietic (self-producing). Variations of this definition include Stuart Kauffman's definition as an autonomous agent or a multi-agent system capable of reproducing itself or themselves, and of completing at least one thermodynamic work cycle.




Viruses are most often considered replicators rather than forms of life. They have been described as "organisms at the edge of life", since they possess genes, evolve by natural selection, and replicate by creating multiple copies of them through self-assembly. However, viruses do not metabolize and require a host cell to make new products. Virus self-assembly within host cells has implications for the study of the origin of life, as it may support the hypothesis that life could have started as self-assembling organic molecules.




Biophysicists have also commented on the nature and qualities of life forms—notably that they function on negative entropy.  In more detail, according to physicists such as John Bernal, Erwin Schrödinger, Eugene Wigner, and John Avery, life is a member of the class of phenomena which are open or continuous systems able to decrease their internal entropy at the expense of substances or free energy taken in from the environment and subsequently rejected in a degraded form.



Early theories about life




Some of the earliest theories of life were materialist, holding that all that exists is matter, and that all life is merely a complex form or arrangement of matter. Empedocles (430 B.C.) argued that everything in the universe is made up of a combination of four eternal 'elements' or 'roots of all': earth, water, air, and fire. All change is explained by the arrangement and rearrangement of these four elements. The various forms of life are caused by an appropriate mixture of elements. For example, growth in plants is explained by the natural downward movement of earth and the natural upward movement of fire.


Democritus (460 B.C.), the disciple of Leucippus, thought that the essential characteristic of life is having a soul (psychê). In common with other ancient writers, he used the term to mean the principle of living things that causes them to function as a living thing. He thought the soul was composed of fire atoms, because of the apparent connection between life and heat, and because fire moves.  He also suggested that humans originally lived like animals, gradually developing communities to help one another, originating language, and developing crafts and agriculture.


In the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, mechanistic ideas were revived by philosophers like Descartes.




Hylomorphism is the theory (originating with Aristotle (322 BC)) that all things are a combination of matter and form. Aristotle was one of the first ancient writers to approach the subject of life in a scientific way. Biology was one of his main interests, and there is extensive biological material in his extant writings. According to him, all things in the material universe have both matter and form. The form of a living thing is its soul (Greek 'psyche', Latin 'anima'). There are three kinds of souls: the 'vegetative soul' of plants, which causes them to grow and decay and nourish themselves, but does not cause motion and sensation; the 'animal soul' which causes animals to move and feel; and the rational soul which is the source of consciousness and reasoning which (Aristotle believed) is found only in man.  Each higher soul has all the attributes of the lower one. Aristotle believed that while matter can exist without form, form cannot exist without matter, and therefore the soul cannot exist without the body.


Consistent with this account is a teleological explanation of life. A teleological explanation accounts for phenomena in terms of their purpose or goal-directedness. Thus, the whiteness of the polar bear's coat is explained by its purpose of camouflage. The direction of causality is the other way round from materialistic science, which explains the consequence in terms of a prior cause. Most modern biologists now reject this functional view in terms of a material and causal one: biological features are to be explained not by looking forward to future optimal results, but by looking backwards to the past evolutionary history of a species, which led to the natural selection of the features in question.




Vitalism is the belief that the life-principle is essentially immaterial. This originated with Stahl, and held sway until the middle of the nineteenth century. It appealed to philosophers such as Henri Bergson, Nietzsche, Wilhelm Dilthey, anatomists like Bichat, and chemists like Liebig.


Vitalism underpinned the idea of a fundamental separation of 'organic' and inorganic material, and the belief that organic material can only be derived from living things. This was disproved in 1828 when Wöhler prepared urea from inorganic materials. This so-called Wöhler synthesis is considered the starting point of modern organic chemistry. It is of great historical significance because for the first time an organic compound was produced from inorganic reactants.


Later, Helmholtz, anticipated by Mayer, demonstrated that no energy is lost in muscle movement, suggesting that there were no vital forces necessary to move a muscle. These empirical results led to the abandonment of scientific interest in vitalistic theories, although the belief lingered on in non-scientific theories such as homeopathy, which interprets diseases and sickness as caused by disturbances in a hypothetical vital force or life force.



Origin of life


Evidence suggests that life on Earth has existed for about 3.7 billion years.  All known life forms share fundamental molecular mechanisms, and based on these observations, theories on the origin of life attempt to find a mechanism explaining the formation of a primordial single cell organism from which all life originates. There are many different hypotheses regarding the path that might have been taken from simple organic molecules via pre-cellular life to protocells and metabolism. Many models fall into the "genes-first" category or the "metabolism-first" category, but a recent trend is the emergence of hybrid models that combine both categories.


There is no scientific consensus as to how life originated and all proposed theories are highly speculative. However, most currently accepted scientific models build in one way or another on the following hypotheses:

  • The Miller-Urey experiment, and the work of Sidney Fox, suggests that those conditions on the primitive Earth may have favored chemical reactions that synthesized some organic compounds from inorganic precursors.
  • Phospholipids spontaneously form lipid bilayers, the basic structure of a cell membrane.
  • Ribozyme self synthesis. Investigators have been able to produce ribozymes which are able to synthesize, or create, more copies of themselves under very specific conditions.



Conditions for life


The diversity of life on Earth today is a result of the dynamic interplay between genetic opportunity, metabolic capability and environmental challenges.  For most of its existence, Earth's habitable environment has been dominated by microorganisms and subjected to their metabolism and evolution. As a consequence of such microbial activities on a geologic time scale, the physical-chemical environment on Earth has been changing, thereby determining the path of evolution of subsequent life.  For example, the release of molecular oxygen by cyanobacteria as a by-product of photosynthesis induced fundamental, global changes in the Earth's environment. The altered environment, in turn, posed novel evolutionary challenges to the organisms present, which ultimately resulted in the formation of our planet's major animal and plant species. Therefore this 'co-evolution' between organisms and their environment is apparently an inherent feature of living systems.


Range of tolerance


The inert components of an ecosystem are the physical and chemical factors necessary for life – energy (sunlight or chemical energy), water, temperature, atmosphere, gravity, nutrients, and ultraviolet solar radiation protection.  In most ecosystems the conditions vary during the day and often shift from one season to the next. To live in most ecosystems, then, organisms must be able to survive a range of conditions, called 'range of tolerance'.  Outside of that are the 'zones of physiological stress', where the survival and reproduction are possible but not optimal. Outside of these zones are the 'zones of intolerance', where life for that organism is implausible. It has been determined that organisms that have a wide range of tolerance are more widely distributed than organisms with a narrow range of tolerance.




Life has evolved strategies that allow it to survive even beyond the physical and chemical limits to which it has adapted to grow. To survive, some microorganisms can assume forms that enable them to withstand freezing, complete desiccation, starvation, high-levels of radiation exposure, and other physical or chemical challenges. Furthermore, some microorganisms can survive exposure to such conditions for weeks, months, years, or even centuries.  Extremophiles are microbial life forms that thrive outside the ranges life is commonly found in. They also excel at exploiting uncommon sources of energy. While all organisms are composed of nearly identical molecules, evolution has enabled such microbes to cope with this wide range of physical and chemical conditions. Characterization of the structure and metabolic diversity of microbial communities in such extreme environments is ongoing. An understanding of the tenacity and versatility of life on Earth, as well as an understanding of the molecular systems that some organisms utilize to survive such extremes, will provide a critical foundation for the search for life beyond Earth.



Classification of life


Traditionally, people have divided organisms into the classes of plants and animals, based mainly on their ability of movement. The first known attempt to classify organisms was conducted by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC). He classified all living organisms known at that time as either a plant or an animal. Aristotle distinguished animals with blood from animals without blood (or at least without red blood), which can be compared with the concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates respectively. He divided the blooded animals into five groups: viviparous quadrupeds (mammals), birds, oviparous quadrupeds (reptiles and amphibians), fishes and whales. The bloodless animals were also divided into five groups: cephalopods, crustaceans, insects (which also included the spiders, scorpions, and centipedes, in addition to what we now define as insects), shelled animals (such as most molluscs and echinoderms) and "zoophytes". Though Aristotle's work in zoology was not without errors, it was the grandest biological synthesis of the time and remained the ultimate authority for many centuries after his death.


The exploration of the American continent revealed large numbers of new plants and animals that needed descriptions and classification. In the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, careful study of animals commenced and was gradually extended until it formed a sufficient body of knowledge to serve as an anatomical basis for classification.


The various levels of the scientific classification system.

The hierarchy of biological classification's eight major taxonomic ranks.  Life is divided into domains, which are subdivided into further groups. Intermediate minor rankings are not shown


In the late 1740s, Carolus Linnaeus introduced his method, still used, to formulate the scientific name of every species.  Linnaeus took every effort to improve the composition and reduce the length of the many-worded names by abolishing unnecessary rhetoric, introducing new descriptive terms and defining their meaning with an unprecedented precision. By consistently using his system, Linnaeus separated nomenclature from taxonomy. This convention for naming species is referred to as binomial nomenclature.


The fungi were originally treated as plants. For a short period Linnaeus had placed them in the taxon Vermes in Animalia. He later placed them back in Plantae. Copeland classified the Fungi in his Protoctista, thus partially avoiding the problem but acknowledged their special status.  The problem was eventually solved by Whittaker, when he gave them their own kingdom in his five-kingdom system. As it turned out, the fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants.


As new discoveries enabled us to study cells and microorganisms, new groups of life were revealed, and the fields of cell biology and microbiology were created. These new organisms were originally described separately in protozoa as animals and protophyta/thallophyta as plants, but were united by Haeckel in his kingdom protista, later the group of prokaryotes were split off in the kingdom Monera, eventually this kingdom would be divided in two separate groups, the Bacteria and the Archaea, leading to the six-kingdom system and eventually to the current three-domain system.  The classification of eukaryotes is still controversial, with protist taxonomy especially problematic.


As microbiology, molecular biology and virology developed, non-cellular reproducing agents were discovered, such as viruses and viroids. Sometimes these entities are considered to be alive but others argue that viruses are not living organisms since they lack characteristics such as cell membrane, metabolism and do not grow or respond to their environments. Viruses can however be classed into "species" based on their biology and genetics but many aspects of such a classification remain controversial.


Since the 1960s a trend called cladistics has emerged, arranging taxa in an evolutionary or phylogenetic tree. It is unclear, should this be implemented, how the different codes will coexist.


2 kingdoms

3 kingdoms

2 empires

4 kingdoms

5 kingdoms

Woese et al.
6 kingdoms

Woese et al.
3 domains

(not treated)




























Extraterrestrial life


Earth is the only planet in the universe known to harbor life. The Drake equation, which relates the number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our galaxy with which we might come in contact, has been used to discuss the probability of life elsewhere, but scientists disagree on many of the values of variables in this equation. Depending on those values, the equation may either suggest that life arises frequently or infrequently.


Panspermia and exogenesis are hypotheses proposing that life originated elsewhere in the universe and was subsequently transferred to Earth in the form of spores perhaps via meteorites, comets or cosmic dust. However, those hypotheses do not help explain the ultimate origin of life.





Death is the permanent termination of all vital functions or life processes in an organism or cell.  After death, the remains of an organism become part of the biogeochemical cycle. Organisms may be consumed by a predator or a scavenger and leftover organic material may then be further decomposed by detritivores, organisms which recycle detritus, returning it to the environment for reuse in the food chain.


One of the challenges in defining death is in distinguishing it from life. Death would seem to refer to either the moment at which life ends, or when the state that follows life begins.  However, determining when death has occurred requires drawing precise conceptual boundaries between life and death. This is problematic however because there is little consensus over how to define life. The nature of death has for millennia been a central concern of the world's religious traditions and of philosophical enquiry. Many religions maintain faith in either some kind of afterlife or reincarnation.




Extinction is the gradual process by which a group of taxa or species dies out, reducing biodiversity.  The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of that species. Because a species' potential range may be very large, determining this moment is difficult, and is usually done retrospectively after a period of apparent absence. Species become extinct when they are no longer able to survive in changing habitat or against superior competition. Over the history of the Earth, over 99% of all the species that have ever lived have gone extinct.




Fossils are the preserved remains or traces of animals, plants, and other organisms from the remote past. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossil-containing rock formations and sedimentary layers (strata) is known as the fossil record. Such a preserved specimen is called a "fossil" if it is older than the arbitrary date of 10,000 years ago.  Hence, fossils range in age from the youngest at the start of the Holocene Epoch to the oldest from the Archaean Eon, a few billion years old.


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