what is alive?

Mario Vaneechoutte Mario.Vaneechoutte at rug.ac.be
Fri Sep 13 13:45:04 EST 1996

Mike O'Hara wrote:
> > Carrying on from the original question (are viruses alive) and looking at Mario Vaneechoutte's definition, how do people feel about 'alive' for the BSE agent. At this stage it looks to be a variant protein form that perpetuates its structure by altering non-variant forms (the ultimate in political conversions). One would have to suppose that the variant form arose in some way and has since perpetuated itself.

Ed Rybicki wrote: 
> For me, it's simple: it's not replicating; like fire, it is simply
> propagating a chemical reaction which varies according to its
> substrate; therefore, it is not alive.

Strange, I would define prions as alive according to the broad
definition of life (or living information) I favour: living information
is that information which is capable of making more material
instantiations of itself by copying already existing instantiations of
itself. Prion information replicates, by turning normal proteins into
'prion' proteins. Indeed, it is a peculiar form of living information
and of propagation, but it propagates. It is an illustration of how
information can't be stopped spreading once it comes into existence
(compare to wrong information: nothing you can do to withdraw it, since
there are too many copies continuously being copied. That is why the
same silly discussions (e.g. on creationism) keep popping up).

Mario Vaneechoutte
Laboratory Bacteriology & Virology
Blok A, De Pintelaan 185
University Hospital Ghent
Belgium 9000 Ghent
Tel: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59
E-mail: Mario.Vaneechoutte at rug.ac.be

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