Why is life so overwhelming

The riddle of life

"Life is characterized by the fact that it has its own active metabolism. Substances are absorbed, metabolized and excreted. This may not cover areas that other sciences like to have in the concept of life, but from a biological point of view that is almost enough."

"The riddle of life" was the name of the conference at the Evangelical Academy of the Rhineland. Biology is on the way to solving this mystery step by step. The human being disputes his role from the creator, pointed the science journal "Nature" last year. Be it that he himself becomes the "creator" - or that he demystifies "creation" with a scientific eye. In recent years, for example, "synthetic biology", a further development of genetic research about which Dr. Margret Engelhard from the European Academy for Research into Consequences of Scientific and Technical Developments gave a lecture.

"In genetic engineering, in order to achieve a certain property, you have to transform a gene from one organism to another. In synthetic biology, you go there to design organisms from scratch."

A research team at the Craig Venter Institute in the United States made headlines in 2010. For the first time, the scientists there succeeded in creating a synthetic cell.

"Craig Venter completely synthesized a genome there in a test tube and placed it in an empty bacterial shell. And this bacterium then took on the properties of this artificial genome."

It is true that this did not create a completely new living being, because ultimately the building blocks of DNA were only reassembled. But the result was a viable cell that is directed by a synthetic genome and can even reproduce independently. And the development continues.

"You intend to create an entire living being in a test tube. I can basically imagine that that will happen sooner or later."

However, Margret Engelhard does not want to call the synthetic life from the drawing board "creation", but rather "design". A kind of engineering art, with the aim of creating bespoke microorganisms with new, useful properties. Bacteria, for example, that produce biofuels, recycle plastic waste or supply medicinal substances.

"Creating and creating always has such a divine dimension to it, I prefer to speak of design. But it is quite the case that some synthetic biologists say that they create better living beings than those found in nature."

"The earth should produce life" it says in the Old Testament, "all kinds of cattle and wild animals and everything that creeps on the earth". Evolutionary biology answers today how the earth did it. And in a very prosaic way. Because the secret of life is: eat in order to survive and reproduce. Dr. Meike Teschke, biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön:

"This urge of life must be anchored in life, very deeply anchored. Because otherwise there would be no more life, if the organisms did not do everything to reproduce, life would be gone again very quickly."

So all life wants to multiply. And when the genetic material is passed on, random genetic mutations occur again and again.

"There are the neutral mutations that have no function or effect on the organism, that is the majority, then there are negative mutations that make an organism sick or make it less fit. And there are positive mutations that help an organism getting along better in the environment. "

If an organism - whether a primitive cell or a higher living being - can suddenly adapt better than others to its environment due to such mutations, this organism will also produce more offspring. The poorly adapted will die out over the millennia. Life evolves. "Survival of the fittest" was the name given by Darwin. However, genetic research has now found that not only chance, but also the environment, our respective living conditions, can have a lasting influence on our genetic make-up.

"I have my gene, it's a word in the genome and I can now switch this gene on and off by adding a protein to this start of the gene or not. There are epigenetic changes that are accumulated over life, simply as a reaction of our body to certain environmental conditions. "

This "banality", with which life is said to have developed through more or less random mutations and the resulting "selections" from the most primitive unicellular organism to humans, was difficult to digest for some of the conference attendees. In addition, evolutionary biology still lacks answers to key questions. In any case, it has so far not been possible to reconstruct in the laboratory why life arose in some molecules around four billion years ago. Doesn't this open up the space for a kind of "intelligent designer" as fundamentalist Christians like to claim? The Protestant theologian Professor Michael Roth from the University of Bonn warns against such conclusions:

"God is not the stopgap for things that biology and physics cannot explain. If you did that, you would make God dependent on it, and he would get smaller and smaller in this area. Above all, he would be pushed out of our lives because it only plays a role in these scientific questions. "

So will the "riddle of life" be solved with the help of biology in the future? As overwhelming as their progress is, biology also only describes certain aspects, according to the head of the Evangelical Academy, Dr. Frank Vogelsang, and not all of life.

"We are already asking why we have become what we have become, why did man come into being, why do we have the intelligence that we have received, there are strong philosophical and theological references to it. If we want to understand certain molecular processes, then we can do that on the laboratory bench. But if we want to understand life as a whole, then we are far too involved and cannot distance ourselves sufficiently. "

Life is always an individual life story. These are experiences of pain and joy. It includes meeting others. And last but not least, people's knowledge of their own death. So does something "unavailable" remain in the end, a riddle that religion, philosophy or art can perhaps approach more closely than biology?