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ANewPhysicsTheoryofLife

KatherineTaylorforQuantaMagazine

JeremyEngland,a31yearoldphysicistatMIT,think shehasfoundtheunderlyingphysicsdrivingthe
originandevolutionoflife.
By:NatalieWolchover
January22,2014

Comments(222)

hydoeslifeexist?

Popularhypothesescreditaprimordialsoup,aboltoflightningandacolossalstrokeofluck.Butif
aprovocativenewtheoryiscorrect,luckmayhavelittletodowithit.Instead,accordingtothe
physicistproposingtheidea,theoriginandsubsequentevolutionoflifefollowfromthefundamental
lawsofnatureandshouldbeasunsurprisingasrocksrollingdownhill.
Fromthestandpointofphysics,thereisoneessentialdifferencebetweenlivingthingsandinanimate
clumpsofcarbonatoms:Theformertendtobemuchbetteratcapturingenergyfromtheir

environmentanddissipatingthatenergyasheat.JeremyEngland,a31yearoldassistantprofessor
attheMassachusettsInstituteofTechnology,hasderivedamathematicalformulathathebelieves
explainsthiscapacity.Theformula,basedonestablishedphysics,indicatesthatwhenagroupof
atomsisdrivenbyanexternalsourceofenergy(likethesunorchemicalfuel)andsurroundedbya
heatbath(liketheoceanoratmosphere),itwilloftengraduallyrestructureitselfinorderto
dissipateincreasinglymoreenergy.Thiscouldmeanthatundercertainconditions,matter
inexorablyacquiresthekeyphysicalattributeassociatedwithlife.
Youstartwitharandomclumpofatoms,andif
youshinelightonitforlongenough,itshouldnot
besosurprisingthatyougetaplant,England
said.
Englandstheoryismeanttounderlie,ratherthan
replace,Darwinstheoryofevolutionbynatural
selection,whichprovidesapowerfuldescriptionof
lifeatthelevelofgenesandpopulations.Iam
certainlynotsayingthatDarwinianideasare
wrong,heexplained.Onthecontrary,Iamjust
sayingthatfromtheperspectiveofthephysics,you
mightcallDarwinianevolutionaspecialcaseofa
moregeneralphenomenon.

KristianPeters

CellsfromthemossPlagiomniumaffinewith
visiblechloroplasts,organellesthatconduct
photosynthesisbycapturingsunlight.

Hisidea,detailedinarecentpaperandfurtherelaboratedinatalkheisdeliveringatuniversities
aroundtheworld,hassparkedcontroversyamonghiscolleagues,whoseeitaseithertenuousora
potentialbreakthrough,orboth.
Englandhastakenaverybraveandveryimportantstep,saidAlexanderGrosberg,aprofessorof
physicsatNewYorkUniversitywhohasfollowedEnglandsworksinceitsearlystages.Thebig
hopeisthathehasidentifiedtheunderlyingphysicalprincipledrivingtheoriginandevolutionof
life,Grosbergsaid.
JeremyisjustaboutthebrightestyoungscientistIevercameacross,saidAttilaSzabo,a
biophysicistintheLaboratoryofChemicalPhysicsattheNationalInstitutesofHealthwho
correspondedwithEnglandabouthistheoryaftermeetinghimataconference.Iwasstruckbythe
originalityoftheideas.
Others,suchasEugeneShakhnovich,aprofessorofchemistry,chemicalbiologyandbiophysicsat
HarvardUniversity,arenotconvinced.Jeremysideasareinterestingandpotentiallypromising,

butatthispointareextremelyspeculative,especiallyasappliedtolifephenomena,Shakhnovich
said.
Englandstheoreticalresultsaregenerallyconsideredvalid.Itishisinterpretationthathis
formularepresentsthedrivingforcebehindaclassofphenomenainnaturethatincludeslifethat
remainsunproven.Butalready,thereareideasabouthowtotestthatinterpretationinthelab.
Hestryingsomethingradicallydifferent,saidMaraPrentiss,aprofessorofphysicsatHarvard
whoiscontemplatingsuchanexperimentafterlearningaboutEnglandswork.Asanorganizing
lens,Ithinkhehasafabulousidea.Rightorwrong,itsgoingtobeverymuchworththe
investigation.
AttheheartofEnglandsideaisthesecondlawofthermodynamics,alsoknownasthelawof
increasingentropyorthearrowoftime.Hotthingscooldown,gasdiffusesthroughair,eggs
scramblebutneverspontaneouslyunscrambleinshort,energytendstodisperseorspreadoutas
timeprogresses.Entropyisameasureofthistendency,quantifyinghowdispersedtheenergyis
amongtheparticlesinasystem,andhowdiffusethoseparticlesarethroughoutspace.Itincreasesas
asimplematterofprobability:Therearemorewaysforenergytobespreadoutthanforittobe
concentrated.Thus,asparticlesinasystemmovearoundandinteract,theywill,throughsheer
chance,tendtoadoptconfigurationsinwhichtheenergyisspreadout.Eventually,thesystem
arrivesatastateofmaximumentropycalledthermodynamicequilibrium,inwhichenergyis
uniformlydistributed.Acupofcoffeeandtheroomitsitsinbecomethesametemperature,for
example.Aslongasthecupandtheroomareleftalone,thisprocessisirreversible.Thecoffeenever
spontaneouslyheatsupagainbecausetheoddsareoverwhelminglystackedagainstsomuchofthe
roomsenergyrandomlyconcentratinginitsatoms.
Althoughentropymustincreaseovertimeinanisolatedorclosedsystem,anopensystemcan
keepitsentropylowthatis,divideenergyunevenlyamongitsatomsbygreatlyincreasingthe
entropyofitssurroundings.Inhisinfluential1944monographWhatIsLife?theeminent
quantumphysicistErwinSchrdingerarguedthatthisiswhatlivingthingsmustdo.Aplant,for
example,absorbsextremelyenergeticsunlight,usesittobuildsugars,andejectsinfraredlight,a
muchlessconcentratedformofenergy.Theoverallentropyoftheuniverseincreasesduring
photosynthesisasthesunlightdissipates,evenastheplantpreventsitselffromdecayingby
maintaininganorderlyinternalstructure.
Lifedoesnotviolatethesecondlawofthermodynamics,butuntilrecently,physicistswereunableto
usethermodynamicstoexplainwhyitshouldariseinthefirstplace.InSchrdingersday,they
couldsolvetheequationsofthermodynamicsonlyforclosedsystemsinequilibrium.Inthe1960s,
theBelgianphysicistIlyaPrigoginemadeprogressonpredictingthebehaviorofopensystems

weaklydrivenbyexternalenergysources(for
whichhewonthe1977NobelPrizeinchemistry).
Butthebehaviorofsystemsthatarefarfrom
equilibrium,whichareconnectedtotheoutside
environmentandstronglydrivenbyexternal
sourcesofenergy,couldnotbepredicted.

CourtesyofJeremyEngland

AcomputersimulationbyJeremyEnglandand
colleaguesshowsasystemofparticlesconfined
insideaviscousfluidinwhichtheturquoise
particlesaredrivenbyanoscillatingforce.Over
time(fromtoptobottom),theforcetriggersthe
formationofmorebondsamongtheparticles.

Thissituationchangedinthelate1990s,due
primarilytotheworkofChrisJarzynski,nowat
theUniversityofMaryland,andGavinCrooks,
nowatLawrenceBerkeleyNationalLaboratory.
JarzynskiandCrooksshowedthattheentropy
producedbyathermodynamicprocess,suchasthe
coolingofacupofcoffee,correspondstoasimple
ratio:theprobabilitythattheatomswillundergo
thatprocessdividedbytheirprobabilityof
undergoingthereverseprocess(thatis,
spontaneouslyinteractinginsuchawaythatthe
coffeewarmsup).Asentropyproductionincreases,
sodoesthisratio:Asystemsbehaviorbecomes
moreandmoreirreversible.Thesimpleyet
rigorousformulacouldinprinciplebeappliedto
anythermodynamicprocess,nomatterhowfastor
farfromequilibrium.Ourunderstandingoffar
fromequilibriumstatisticalmechanicsgreatly
improved,Grosbergsaid.England,whoistrained
inbothbiochemistryandphysics,startedhisown
labatMITtwoyearsagoanddecidedtoapplythe
newknowledgeofstatisticalphysicstobiology.

UsingJarzynskiandCrooksformulation,he
derivedageneralizationofthesecondlawof
thermodynamicsthatholdsforsystemsofparticles
withcertaincharacteristics:Thesystemsare
stronglydrivenbyanexternalenergysourcesuch
asanelectromagneticwave,andtheycandumpheatintoasurroundingbath.Thisclassofsystems
includesalllivingthings.Englandthendeterminedhowsuchsystemstendtoevolveovertimeas
theyincreasetheirirreversibility.Wecanshowverysimplyfromtheformulathatthemorelikely
evolutionaryoutcomesaregoingtobetheonesthatabsorbedanddissipatedmoreenergyfromthe

environmentsexternaldrivesonthewaytogettingthere,hesaid.Thefindingmakesintuitive
sense:Particlestendtodissipatemoreenergywhentheyresonatewithadrivingforce,ormoveinthe
directionitispushingthem,andtheyaremorelikelytomoveinthatdirectionthananyotheratany
givenmoment.
Thismeansclumpsofatomssurroundedbyabathatsometemperature,liketheatmosphereorthe
ocean,shouldtendovertimetoarrangethemselvestoresonatebetterandbetterwiththesourcesof
mechanical,electromagneticorchemicalworkintheirenvironments,Englandexplained.
Selfreplication(orreproduction,inbiological
terms),theprocessthatdrivestheevolutionoflife
onEarth,isonesuchmechanismbywhichasystem
mightdissipateanincreasingamountofenergy
overtime.AsEnglandputit,Agreatwayof
dissipatingmoreistomakemorecopiesof
yourself.InaSeptemberpaperintheJournalof
ChemicalPhysics,hereportedthetheoretical
minimumamountofdissipationthatcanoccur
duringtheselfreplicationofRNAmoleculesand
bacterialcells,andshowedthatitisverycloseto
theactualamountsthesesystemsdissipatewhen
replicating.HealsoshowedthatRNA,thenucleic
acidthatmanyscientistsbelieveservedasthe
precursortoDNAbasedlife,isaparticularlycheap
buildingmaterial.OnceRNAarose,heargues,its
Darwiniantakeoverwasperhapsnotsurprising.

CourtesyofMichaelBrenner/ProceedingsoftheNational
AcademyofSciences

SelfReplicatingSphereClusters:According
tonewresearchatHarvard,coatingthe
surfacesofmicrospherescancausethemto
spontaneouslyassembleintoachosen
structure,suchasapolytetrahedron(red),which
thentriggersnearbyspheresintoformingan
identicalstructure.

Thechemistryoftheprimordialsoup,random
mutations,geography,catastrophiceventsandcountlessotherfactorshavecontributedtothefine
detailsofEarthsdiversefloraandfauna.ButaccordingtoEnglandstheory,theunderlying
principledrivingthewholeprocessisdissipationdrivenadaptationofmatter.
Thisprinciplewouldapplytoinanimatematteraswell.Itisverytemptingtospeculateaboutwhat
phenomenainnaturewecannowfitunderthisbigtentofdissipationdrivenadaptive
organization,Englandsaid.Manyexamplescouldjustberightunderournose,butbecausewe
haventbeenlookingforthemwehaventnoticedthem.
Scientistshavealreadyobservedselfreplicationinnonlivingsystems.Accordingtonewresearchled
byPhilipMarcusoftheUniversityofCalifornia,Berkeley,andreportedinPhysicalReviewLetters

inAugust,vorticesinturbulentfluidsspontaneouslyreplicatethemselvesbydrawingenergyfrom
shearinthesurroundingfluid.AndinapaperappearingonlinethisweekinProceedingsofthe
NationalAcademyofSciences,MichaelBrenner,aprofessorofappliedmathematicsandphysicsat
Harvard,andhiscollaboratorspresenttheoreticalmodelsandsimulationsofmicrostructuresthat
selfreplicate.Theseclustersofspeciallycoatedmicrospheresdissipateenergybyropingnearby
spheresintoformingidenticalclusters.ThisconnectsverymuchtowhatJeremyissaying,
Brennersaid.
Besidesselfreplication,greaterstructuralorganizationisanothermeansbywhichstronglydriven
systemsrampuptheirabilitytodissipateenergy.Aplant,forexample,ismuchbetteratcapturing
androutingsolarenergythroughitselfthananunstructuredheapofcarbonatoms.Thus,England
arguesthatundercertainconditions,matterwillspontaneouslyselforganize.Thistendencycould
accountfortheinternalorderoflivingthingsandofmanyinanimatestructuresaswell.
Snowflakes,sanddunesandturbulentvorticesallhaveincommonthattheyarestrikingly
patternedstructuresthatemergeinmanyparticlesystemsdrivenbysomedissipativeprocess,he
said.Condensation,windandviscousdragaretherelevantprocessesintheseparticularcases.
Heismakingmethinkthatthedistinctionbetweenlivingandnonlivingmatterisnotsharp,said
CarlFranck,abiologicalphysicistatCornellUniversity,inanemail.Imparticularlyimpressedby
thisnotionwhenoneconsiderssystemsassmallaschemicalcircuitsinvolvingafewbiomolecules.
Englandsboldideawilllikelyfaceclosescrutiny
inthecomingyears.Heiscurrentlyrunning
computersimulationstotesthistheorythatsystems
ofparticlesadapttheirstructurestobecomebetter
atdissipatingenergy.Thenextstepwillbetorun
experimentsonlivingsystems.

WilsonBentley

Ifanewtheoryiscorrect,thesamephysicsit
identifiesasresponsiblefortheoriginofliving
thingscouldexplaintheformationofmanyother
patternedstructuresinnature.Snowflak es,
sanddunesandselfreplicatingvorticesinthe
protoplanetarydisk mayallbeexamplesof
dissipationdrivenadaptation.

Prentiss,whorunsanexperimentalbiophysicslab
atHarvard,saysEnglandstheorycouldbetestedby
comparingcellswithdifferentmutationsand
lookingforacorrelationbetweentheamountof
energythecellsdissipateandtheirreplicationrates.
Onehastobecarefulbecauseanymutationmight
domanythings,shesaid.Butifonekeptdoing
manyoftheseexperimentsondifferentsystemsand
if[dissipationandreplicationsuccess]areindeed
correlated,thatwouldsuggestthisisthecorrect
organizingprinciple.

BrennersaidhehopestoconnectEnglandstheory
tohisownmicrosphereconstructionsanddeterminewhetherthetheorycorrectlypredictswhichself
replicationandselfassemblyprocessescanoccurafundamentalquestioninscience,hesaid.
Havinganoverarchingprincipleoflifeandevolutionwouldgiveresearchersabroaderperspective
ontheemergenceofstructureandfunctioninlivingthings,manyoftheresearcherssaid.Natural
selectiondoesntexplaincertaincharacteristics,saidArdLouis,abiophysicistatOxford
University,inanemail.Thesecharacteristicsincludeaheritablechangetogeneexpressioncalled
methylation,increasesincomplexityintheabsenceofnaturalselection,andcertainmolecular
changesLouishasrecentlystudied.
IfEnglandsapproachstandsuptomoretesting,itcouldfurtherliberatebiologistsfromseekinga
Darwinianexplanationforeveryadaptationandallowthemtothinkmoregenerallyintermsof
dissipationdrivenorganization.Theymightfind,forexample,thatthereasonthatanorganism
showscharacteristicXratherthanYmaynotbebecauseXismorefitthanY,butbecausephysical
constraintsmakeiteasierforXtoevolvethanforYtoevolve,Louissaid.
Peopleoftengetstuckinthinkingaboutindividualproblems,Prentisssaid.Whetherornot
Englandsideasturnouttobeexactlyright,shesaid,thinkingmorebroadlyiswheremany
scientificbreakthroughsaremade.
EmilySingercontributedreporting.ThisarticlewasreprintedonScientificAmerican.comand
BusinessInsider.com.
Correction:ThisarticlewasrevisedonJanuary22,2014,toreflectthatIlyaPrigoginewonthe
NobelPrizeinchemistry,notphysics.

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