Reclassifying Viruses as Living?

Robin Leech releech at TELUSPLANET.NET
Wed Mar 15 05:25:42 CST 2006

Hi Richard,
Thanks for your reply.  I think the March 2006 issue of DISCOVER
magazine, pages 32-39, will provide very interesting reading for
Taxacom members.
----- Original Message -----
From: "Richard Pyle" <deepreef at BISHOPMUSEUM.ORG>
Sent: Wednesday, March 15, 2006 1:49 AM
Subject: Re: Reclassifying Viruses as Living?

> The way I like to distinguish "life" from "non-living chemistry" is that
> the
> former is defined largely by the "flow" of information over time.  "Flow"
> not in the physical sense, but in the sense that the "information"
> transcends its physical basis in matter, and perpetuates imperfectly.
> If you take some heterogenous form of atomic matter (elements and
> molecules), and combine it under a particular set of physical
> circumstances,
> it will yield a predictable (i.e., the same) set of products over and over
> again.  This is what I would classify as non-living chemistry. But if the
> products are not completely predictable (by laws of physics) over time and
> multiple replicates, then something is happening. That "something" is
> information, and the flow of information over timespans that exceed the
> physical/material manifestations of the information storage system is the
> essence of "life", in my view. What makes "information" in this sense
> different from the simple physics of cause and effect, is that the
> reactions
> involved with non-living chemistry do not change if the physical
> environment
> does not change.  A chemical reaction will follow the same pattern in the
> same conditions, even if it is separated by billions of years and occurs
> in
> different parts of the universe.  But information is mutable, and as such
> is
> itself the product of a legacy of information flow.  It is this flow of
> information that unites all living things on planet Earth (as far as we
> now
> know).
> Now, clearly there are examples of infromation "flow" that are non-living,
> and there are different ways of defining what constitutes "information".
> So
> I don't pretend that this is the be-all and end-all distinction between
> life
> and non-living chemistry. But it (information flow) does strike me as a
> fundamental characteristic (perhaps THE fundamental characteristic) of
> "life". Also, although most of what we think of as "life" is organized in
> cohesive (more or less) units that represent collections (sacks) of
> non-living chemistry, and much of this (organic) chemistry is unique to
> living processes (e.g., metabolic pathways), to me those chemical
> reactions
> per se are not really what "defines" life.
> So, I tend to side with others who regard viruses as within the realm of
> "life".  I find this a particularly easy conclusion to arrive at given
> that,
> as has already been pointed out, the information content of viruses is
> stored in the same basic material form as the information stored in
> everything else we lump under the umbrella of "life".
> To me, a trickier (and perhaps more interesting) question is: what are
> prions?  Life, or non-living chemistry? I personally favor the latter
> interpretation in this case.
> Aloha,
> Rich
> P.S. Sorry about's late, and I'm tired, and I'm avoiding the
> work
> that I really should be doing right now...
> Richard L. Pyle, PhD
> Database Coordinator for Natural Sciences
>  and Associate Zoologist in Ichthyology
> Department of Natural Sciences, Bishop Museum
> 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, HI 96817
> Ph: (808)848-4115, Fax: (808)847-8252
> email: deepreef at

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