47 posts tagged Life
These Are Some of the Oldest Living Things on Earth
Animals sometimes sleep inside the hollows of giant 2,000-year old baobab trees inside Kruger Game Preserve in South Africa. Humans too, sometimes use the trees, for more dubious purposes — a jail, a toilet, a pop-up bar — as photographer Rachel Sussman discovered when she toured the park to photograph the trees for her new book, The Oldest Living Things in the World. The very oldest living things on the planet, scientists believe, are Actinobacteria that have inhabited underground permafrost in Siberia for up to 600,000 years. But ancient life survives on every continent, from 5,500-year-old Antarctic mosses, to a 100,000-year-old Mediterranean sea grass meadow, to 12,000-year-old creosote bushes in the Mojave desert, to the Tanzanian lomatia, a 43,600-year-old tree so endangered that only a single individual exists. (via These Are Some of the Oldest Living Things on Earth | Science | WIRED)
The novelist William Golding suggested to James Lovelock that he name his now-famous hypothesis after the Greek goddess of the Earth, Gaia. It was a good fit: Lovelock believed that the living and inanimate parts of the Earth formed a single, interacting, and self-regulating system. Lovelock’s work grew, in part, out of research he had done for NASA, and published in a 1965 Nature paper, about the signs of life we might look for on other planets. Forty-six years later, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope discovered the planet Kepler-22b. It was one of the first planets outside of our solar system confirmed orbiting a sun-like star at a distance that would allow for liquid water to exist on its surface. The availability of liquid water, which is essential to every form of life that we know of, would raise the chances that the planet harbors life. Also, Kepler-22b’s estimated density suggests that it may be composed of rock, which means it might be able to reproduce conditions similar to those found on Earth. Now, scientists are beginning to understand the importance of another characteristic of any planet likely to support life, and it is one that fits squarely into Lovelock’s view of Earth as a dynamic participant rather than a passive backdrop: an active system of drifting continents, otherwise known as plate tectonics. On the face of it, the connection between life, with its relatively brief cycles and dizzying complexity, and plate tectonics, with its much slower cycles and ostensibly simpler interactions, appears tenuous. But on Earth, at least, that connection is direct and deep.
A New Physics Theory of Life
Why does life exist?
Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.” From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life. “You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant,” England said. England’s theory is meant to underlie, rather than replace, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, which provides a powerful description of life at the level of genes and populations. “I am certainly not saying that Darwinian ideas are wrong,” he explained. “On the contrary, I am just saying that from the perspective of the physics, you might call Darwinian evolution a special case of a more general phenomenon.” (via A New Thermodynamics Theory of the Origin of Life | Simons Foundation)
Soylent hits its 1.0 formula, nears release
Soylent, the food replacement from former engineer Rob Rhinehart, has hit one of its final milestones before release: the formula has been finalized and frozen, and large-scale manufacturing and packing is underway. Just after Thanksgiving, Rhinehart posted a blog entry discussing the changes in “Soylent 1.0” versus the beta 0.89 version we consumed for a week back at the end of summer.At the time, the Soylent folks estimated that backers of the company’s wildly successful crowdfunding effort would be receiving their initial shipments of Soylent in December; this estimate has now been revised to January. The main reason for the delay has been due to the small Soylent team having to find ways to cope with the realities of mass-producing their product. The beta packages of Soylent sent out to the small list of testers were all hand-stuffed, whereas the actual production version is being mixed and packaged on an industrial scale by a specialist company called a “co-packer.” (via Soylent hits its 1.0 formula, nears release | Ars Technica)
Seven Molecules’ Claim to Fame Chemistry: These infinitesimal celebrities shape us and our world.
From drinking water to DNA, from caffeine to carbon dioxide, and from Lipitor to Viagra—that is from atorvastatin to sildenafil citrate—molecules define our personalities, regulate our abilities, and dictate our feelings. Invisible to the human eye, many of them are biological celebrities: They famously smell or stink, make us feel depressed or elated, pollute our planet or save our lives. Even the most destructive molecules are so essential to our civilization that modern industry wouldn’t exist without them. Here we describe seven of the most prominent corpuscular figures, without which our life would be completely different. In fact, without some of them, scientists say, there’d be no human life at all.
Cellular “tinkering” is critical for establishing a new engineering discipline that will lead to the next generation of technologies based on life’s building blocks.
Engineering began as an outgrowth of the craftwork of metallurgical artisans. In a constant quest to improve their handiwork, those craftsmen exhaustively and empirically explored the properties—alone and in combination—of natural materials. The knowledge accumulated from this exploration and experimentation with natural building blocks eventually led to today’s modern technologies. We can now readily build things like super-lightweight cars and electrical circuits containing billions of transistors that encode highly sophisticated functions, using reliable design and manufacturing frameworks—a vast leap from artisanal craft.
Today, there is a parallel progression unfolding in the field of synthetic biology, which encompasses the engineering of biological systems from genetically encoded molecular components.1-7 The first decade or so of synthetic biology can be viewed as an artisanal exploration of subcellular material. Much as in the early days of other engineering disciplines, the field’s focus has been on identifying the building blocks that may be useful for constructing synthetic biological circuits—and determining the practical rules for connecting them into functional systems. This artisanal tinkering with cells is necessary for arriving at a rigorous understanding of subcellular construction material and for determining the extent to which it can be manipulated. (via Engineering Life | The Scientist Magazine®)