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Wanted: A fundamental theory of the living world

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File:The flock of starlings acting as a swarm. - - 124593.jpg
swarm of starlings/John Holmes, CC

From Nature:

Dogic’s team created a new kind of liquid crystal. Unlike the molecules in standard liquid-crystal displays, which passively form patterns in response to electric fields, Dogic’s components were active. They propelled themselves, taking energy from their environment — in this case, from ATP. And they formed patterns spontaneously, thanks to the collective behaviour of thousands of units moving independently.

These are the hallmarks of systems that physicists call active matter, which have become a major subject of research in the past few years. Examples abound in the natural world — among them the leaderless but coherent flocking of birds and the flowing, structure-forming cytoskeletons of cells.

Based on laboratory work,

Experimentalists are only beginning to gain control of active materials in the lab. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of this research admit that no one has yet produced a theory of active matter that describes the behaviour of everything from cell parts to birds. And if such a theory did exist, it’s far from certain that mainstream biologists would see value in it. For biologists, the idea that living matter is active “would be just so obvious as to not really contain very much information”, says Jonathon Howard, a molecular biophysicist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

A question arises: If it is that simple, why is there no spontaneous generation of life?

Some biologists hope that such studies will reveal the fundamental principles that govern how cells divide, take shape or move. “It’s like Linnaean classification before Darwin came along,” says biologist Tony Hyman of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics. “We’ve got all these molecules, just like they had all those species, and we need to put some kind of order, some kind of reason behind it all.” Active matter, Hyman thinks, could provide that reason. More.

See also: Does nature just “naturally” produce life?


What can we hope to learn about animal minds?

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