About this website

Here you will find a description of the aims, activities and theoretical synthesis of the "Information - Function - Biology" project. You can click in the menu to the right to navigate the website.

The broad aim is to advance a deep understanding of life and living which integrates concepts over all scales, all time and all forms of biological organisation. The key insight enabling this is to see that living is an information process, that living forms are concentrations of information engaged in storing, communicating, filtering and recombining information. There are several inspirations for this work, but perhaps the most prominent is the book by Erwin Schrodinger, which he called “What is Life?*”. That is why this website has the URL "WhatLifeIs.Info".

* Provided online by Stanford University, USA.

What is the connection between information, function and biology?

By "information" we do not mean information about things, but rather information embodied and instantiated by the form of things. Most people are aware that the genetic code is information embodied in nucleic acid, but we can also interpret the shape of protein molecules as embodying information. The shape of a molecule fixes the position of its atoms in space and this is a way to store information. When the molecule is an enzyme its shape can directly affect the chemical processes involved in life, not only that but it can change this shape in response to its chemical environment - a process that signals (just as the signals on a railway track) new processes, for example in the cell. In these cases, the information embodied by molecules, or transferred by molecular signalling, is functional in the sense that it does something that contributes towards the working of life. At higher levels of organisation than molecules, we now know that cells send signals to one-another to coordinate their behaviours (within an organ of a body, but also among bacteria) and we all know that whole organisms communicate information to each other (just think of bees and ants). The geochemical control system that keeps the global ecosystem near an equilibrium that is conducive to life (the basis of the Gaia hypothesis) is also fundamentally one of flows of information embodied in matter; these are at least highly influenced by the living.

Consider this: your body is a community of cells, probably about 4x10^13 of them {Bianconi et al 2013}. Only the neural cells live for as long as you do {Spalding et al 2005} (not all of them, though!), so you are not physically the same person as you were a decade ago. But you are the same in a more 'meaningful' way. More starkly, each of these cells is made from molecules, which are all replaced over time-spans much shorter than a human life, so in material terms you are certainly not what you used to be, but you are the same person. How can this be? The answer is that the most important thing about you is preserved through all the replacement of cells and molecules. What is preserved is a great deal of information and it is preserved by the living processes that embody it in physical material. Indeed the moment this preservation of information (by storing and communicating in chemical structures and networks) ceases, you are no longer living. To this extent, living is information processing.

So information is everywhere, indeed it can be thought of as the very basis of existence, and life has concentrated it into fabulous and fascinating complexity. At least a great deal (and some argue all) of the information embodied by life is functional, though there is a debate about what precisely function means. The pages of this website are full of information about just such debates and show our growing knowledge and developing understanding of the way information is used and forms the essence of living, from the molecular, through organismal to the global scale of ecology.

The Research Network

The IFB project is an academic network aimed at building collaboration and sharing knowledge and understanding among a wide range of relevant disciplines. The participants form a multi-disciplinary consortium coordinated by Dr Keith Farnsworth from the Queen's University Belfast. The ideas it is based on are packaged into a set of Themes, each of which has its own webpages on this site.