CHAPTER – 6
How do we tell the difference between what is alive and what is not alive? If we see a dog running, or a cow chewing cud, or a man shouting loudly on the street, we know that these are living beings. What if the dog or the cow or the man were asleep? We would still think that they were alive, but how did we know that? We see them breathing, and we know that they are alive. What about plants? How do we know that they are alive? We see them green, some of us will say. But what about plants that have leaves of colours other than green? They grow over time, so we know that they are alive, some will say. In other words, we tend to think of some sort of movement, either growth-related or not, as common evidence for being alive. But a plant that is not visibly growing is still alive, and some animals can breathe without visible movement. So using visible movement as the defining characteristic of life is not enough.
Movements over very small scales will be invisible to the naked eye – movements of molecules, for example. Is this invisible molecular movement necessary for life? If we ask this question to professional biologists, they will say yes. In fact, viruses do not show any molecular movement in them (until they infect some cell), and that is partly why there is a controversy about whether they are truly alive or not.
Why are molecular movements needed for life? We have seen in earlier classes that living organisms are well-organised structures; they can have tissues, tissues have cells, cells have smaller components in them, and so on. Because of the effects of the environment, this organised, ordered nature of living structures is very likely to keep breaking down over time. If order breaks down, the organism will no longer be alive. So living creatures must keep repairing and maintaining their structures. Since all these structures are made up of molecules, they must move molecules around all the time.
What are the maintenance processes in living organisms? Let us explore.