Prof. Sophia Roosth, history of science, Harvard University, spoke in Kaufmann Auditorium Thursday about the limits of the biological and how we define life in a new age of science, which defy typical expectations and definitions of life.
The lecture, titled “Unlikely Life: Interrogating the Limits of the Biological,” focused on several examples of “unlikely life,” such as the development of the T7.1 virus. Led by Prof. Drew Endy of MIT, synthetic biologists developed this virus in order to better understand the T7 virus, Roosth said.
“Instead of trying to rebuild the model, Endy’s team wanted to rebuild the phage to be more understandable,” Roosth said. “That’s a symptom of the move to manufacture in the life sciences — comprehensibility becomes a design principle, and making becomes a form of inquiry. Knowledge about how life works is furthered not by experimenting on life, but by making new forms of it.”
As synthetic biology methods become more ingrained in modern science, scientists are constructing a more complex definition of life which encompasses a more diverse set of organisms, according to Roosth.
“I call these objects of synthetic biology including T7.1 persuasive objects,” Roosth said. “Such living things do not simply exemplify what life is or what it might next become, they are vital manifestations of theories that simultaneously convince and compel synthetic biologists to redefine life itself as a much [something] broader.”
According to Roosth, defining the origins of life is complex, as the term “life” itself has recently taken on an increasingly malleable identity.
“Life, in short, is something that gets made,” Roosth said. “The unlikely lives born by synthetic biologists grow, mutate, metabolize and divide, yet they also speak eloquently of nature and artifice, of analysis and synthesis, of life and its limits.”
Roosth said the extremely resilient tardigrade, a microscopic eight-legged aquatic extremophile is also an example of unlikely life, which he said has proliferated in almost every terrestrial ecological niche. Biologists have subjected these organisms to many extreme conditions in order to test the tardigrades’ durability, according to Roosth. These tardigrades survive extreme conditions through a process unique to their species and divergent from the typical conception of life.
“The reason that tardigrades can endure such extremes is that when exposed to such conditions they enter a state of suspended animation,” Roosth said. “What that means is that they are pausing their metabolism until they appear as if dead.”
Some theoretical ecologists now believe that some organisms, more than others, challenge our traditional concept of life, Roosth said.
“These are creatures that behave in ways that resist our assumption about how life happens,” Roosth said.
These examples, according to Roosth, served as cases to explore the many problems or theories of life and its limits.
“Rather than being the common denominator underlying all living things, life is perpetually problem of ontological limits and discontinuities,” said Roosth. “Life is indeed a concept … but of course that doesn’t mean that life does not exist, rather that our theories of life are spectacularly lively.”