About this website

Here you will find a description of the aims, activities and scientific insights of the "Information - Function - Biology" project. You can click in the menu to the right to navigate the website. The main part of the website is to be found in the Themes section.
Please note that this is not a website about the 'meaning of life' in a spiritual or psychological sense. Here there is only science. The answer to our question: what is life?, will be a strictly scientific one that considers life in the most general sense possible. What does it mean to be living as opposed to non-living; how did the phenomenon of living  arise;  how has it grown into such variety and complexity and how do things with life (organisms) create a sense of purpose and follow that, rather than being slaves to the physical forces of the rest of the universe?

Our 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 (from atoms to ecosystems and minds). The key insight enabling this is to see that living is an information process: that living beings 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 we gave this website 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 'fixing' is a way to store information. (It turns out that all cases of information storage amount to making patterns in the distribution of matter and/or energy). Taking, for example,  an enzyme molecule, we know its shape causes it to directly affect one or more chemical reactions involved in life. Not only that, it can change this shape in response to its chemical environment and this change works as a signal (just as the signals on a railway track), stimulating new chemical reactions in the living cell. In these cases, the information embodied by the shape of 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, among organs and 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}. Almost all of these cells live for between a few days and a few years only. (Some kinds of neural cells live for as long as you do {Spalding et al 2005}, but the rest are regularly replaced). More starkly, the cells themselves are all made of biomolecules, most of which are replaced on even shorter time-scales, so you are not physically the same person as you were a decade ago. But in a more meaningful way, 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. This replacement is the work of life. What is preserved is a very great deal of information and it is preserved by the living processes that embody this information in molecular shapes and their mutual relationships. 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.

Information is everywhere, indeed it can be thought of as the very basis of existence (that is how the universe in total is what it is), and life has concentrated information 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 (that is a debate in which we are involved). The pages of this website are full of information about these and similar thoughts 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. We combine physics, molecular biology, chemisrty, information science, philosophy and ecology, aiming to create an integrated understanding of life and its properties.

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. We have packeged the ideas, upon which it is based,  into a set of Themes, each of which has its own webpages on this site. 

Last Updated 30-11-16