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Thermodynamics—The physics behind the biology of life?

Read time: 2 mins

It is the 21st century, and human beings have transcended their lives far from ordinary. And yet, the origin of life on Earth is still one of the greatest mysteries of all times. Until now, biology explained the origin of life as the formation of the cell, ultimately creating every living organism on the planet. However, the plausibility of this theory has been challenged by a new one that casts the origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics—an essential part of physics.

If a recent study is to be believed, it turns out that under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves to burn maximum energy, facilitating its incessant dispersal and the rise of ‘entropy’ or disorder in the Universe. In his study, Prof. Jeremy England, a biophysicist from MIT, claims that it is this restructuring that ultimately fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things.

To prove his claims, Prof. England created a simulation that involved a soup of 25 chemicals that react with one another in myriad ways. Some chemical reactions are a result of ‘force’ by these energy sources present in the soup. The system settled into an ‘equilibrium’ state, with a balanced concentration of chemicals and reactions. This tendency to equilibrate—like a cup of piping hot coffee cooling to room temperature—is the most natural outcome of the second law of thermodynamics.

Living beings too maintain steady states of extreme forcing. We power the reactions in our cells as we burn through enormous amounts of chemical energy, degrading it and increasing the entropy of the Universe. The simulation emulates the steady-state behaviour that we notice in living beings in a much simpler chemical system. Ultimately, it shows that when external energy (sun or chemical fuel) and heat bath (atmosphere or oceans) drives a group of atoms, the energy will eventually dissipate by allowing the atoms to restructure themselves. Consequently, under certain external conditions, matter inescapably obtains the critical physical attribute that corresponds to life.

"You start with a random clump of atoms, and if you shine a light on it for long enough, it should not be so surprising that you get a plant”, remarked Prof. England.

Perhaps, the existence of life is no lucky break or a fluke of biology! Instead, various phenomenal physical mechanisms could underlie the origin of life.