A Minimal Framework for Describing Living Systems: A Multi-Dimensional View of Life Across Scales

Kelsey Caetano-Anollés, Brent Ewers, Shilpa Iyer, Jeffrey R. Lucas, Theodore P. Pavlic, Andre P. Seale, Yu Zeng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations

Abstract

The almost limitless complexity of biology has led to two general approaches to understanding biological phenomena. One approach is dominated by reductionism in which high-level phenomena of whole systems are viewed as emerging from relatively simple and generally understood interactions at a substantially lower level. Although this approach is theoretically general, it can become intractable in practice when attempting to simultaneously explain a wide range of systems. A second approach is for specialists to investigate biological phenomena within one of many different hierarchical levels of description that are separated to decouple from concerns at other levels. Although this approach reduces the explanatory burden on specialists that operate within each level, it also reduces integration from insights gained at other levels. Thus, as beneficial as these approaches have been, they limit the scope and integration of knowledge across scales of biological organization to the detriment of a truly synoptic view of life. The challenge is to find a theoretical and experimental framework that facilitates a broader understanding of the hierarchy of life - providing permeability for the exchange of ideas among disciplinary specialists without discounting the peculiarities that have come to define those disciplines. For this purpose, coarse-grained, scale-invariant properties, and resources need to be identified that describe the characteristic features of a living system at all spatiotemporal scales. The approach will be aided by a common vernacular that underscores the realities of biological connections across a wide range of scales. Therefore, in this vision paper, we propose a conceptual approach based on four identified resources - energy, conductance, storage, and information (ECSI) - to reintegrate biological studies with the aim of unifying life sciences under resource limitations. We argue that no functional description of a living system is complete without accounting for at least all four of these resources. Thus, making these resources explicit will help to identify commonalities to aid in transdisciplinary discourse as well as opportunities for integrating among the differently scoped areas of specialized inquiry. The proposed conceptual framework for living systems should be valid across all scales and may uncover potential limitations of existing hypotheses and help researchers develop new hypotheses addressing fundamental processes of life without having to resort to reductionism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2053-2065
Number of pages13
JournalIntegrative and comparative biology
Volume61
Issue number6
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 1 2021
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)

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