Physiological, Metabolic and Biochemical Life


For many years a physiological definition of life was popular. Life was defined as any system capable of performing a number of such functions as eating, metabolizing, excreting, breathing, moving, growing, reproducing, and being responsive to external stimuli. But many such properties are either present in machines that nobody is willing to call alive, or absent from organisms that everybody is willing to call alive. An automobile, for example, can be said to eat, metabolize, excrete, breathe, move, and be responsive to external stimuli. And a visitor from another planet, judging from the enormous numbers of automobiles on the Earth and the way in which cities and landscapes have been designed for the special benefit of motorcars, might well believe that automobiles are not only alive but are the dominant life form on the planet. Man, however, professes to know better. On the other hand, some bacteria do not breathe at all but instead live out their days by altering the oxidation state of sulfur.



The metabolic definition is still popular with many biologists. It describes a living system as an object with a definite boundary, continually exchanging some of its materials with its surroundings, but without altering its general properties, at least over some period of time. But again there are exceptions. There are seeds and spores that remain, so far as is known, perfectly dormant and totally without metabolic activity at low temperatures for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years but that can revive perfectly well upon being subjected to more clement conditions. A flame, such as that of a candle in a closed room, will have a perfectly defined shape with fixed boundary and will be maintained by the combination of its organic waxes with molecular oxygen, producing carbon dioxide and water. A similar chemical reaction, incidentally, is fundamental to most animal life on Earth. Flames also have a well-known capacity for growth.


A biochemical or molecular biological definition sees living organisms as systems that contain reproducible hereditary information coded in nucleic acid molecules and that metabolize by controlling the rate of chemical reactions using proteinaceous catalysts known as enzymes. In many respects, this is more satisfying than the physiological or metabolic definitions of life. There are, however, even here, the hints of counterexamples. There seems to be some evidence that a virus-like agent called scrapie contains no nucleic acids at all, although it has been hypothesized that the nucleic acids of the host animal may nevertheless be involved in the reproduction of scrapie. Furthermore, a definition strictly in chemical terms seems peculiarly vulnerable. It implies that, were a person able to construct a system that had all the functional properties of life, it would still not be alive if it lacked the molecules that earthly biologists are fond of–and made of.