, Volume 6, Issue 3, pp 421-435

The Origin of Cellular Life and Biosemiotics

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Abstract

Recent successes of systems biology clarified that biological functionality is multilevel. We point out that this fact makes it necessary to revise popular views about macromolecular functions and distinguish between local, physico-chemical and global, biological functions. Our analysis shows that physico-chemical functions are merely tools of biological functionality. This result sheds new light on the origin of cellular life, indicating that in evolutionary history, assignment of biological functions to cellular ingredients plays a crucial role. In this wider picture, even if aggregation of chance mutations of replicator molecules and spontaneously self-assembled proteins led to the formation of a system identical with a living cell in all physical respects but devoid of biological functions, it would remain an inanimate physical system, a pseudo-cell or a zombie-cell but not a viable cell. In the origin of life scenarios, a fundamental circularity arises, since if cells are the minimal units of life, it is apparent that assignments of cellular functions require the presence of cells and vice versa. Resolution of this dilemma requires distinguishing between physico-chemical and biological symbols as well as between physico-chemical and biological information. Our analysis of the concepts of symbol, rule and code suggests that they all rely implicitly on biological laws or principles. We show that the problem is how to establish physico-chemically arbitrary rules assigning biological functions without the presence of living organisms. We propose a solution to that problem with the help of a generalized action principle and biological harnessing of quantum uncertainties. By our proposal, biology is an autonomous science having its own fundamental principle. The biological principle ought not to be regarded as an emergent phenomenon. It can guide chemical evolution towards the biological one, progressively assigning greater complexity and functionality to macromolecules and systems of macromolecules at all levels of organization. This solution explains some perplexing facts and posits a new context for thinking about the problems of the origin of life and mind.

Special Issue “Origins of Mind” edited by Liz Stillwaggon Swan and Andrew M. Winters