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Why do we do research?


The difference between chemical reactions and living systems
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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How do I see the difference between a complex system of chemical reactions – however complex you want it to be – many reactions going on forth and back, and a living system which, after all, is also a complex system of chemical reactions? Well, my answer usually is, in the living system everything is controlled and regulated, and the final source of this regulation is information. And this information really organises itself in a way that certain information is called off and certain reaction is triggered, and the whole thing then comes about in a very regulated way. Now, if you ask how did this come about; well, the complex states need information and information in order to come about needs replication, and without replication you can't build up the complexity which is reflected in information.

I'm aware that this is a very different definition one has given in information theory by Shannon and Wiener, where one is more concerned with the aspect of information capacity.  How much information could be expressed in language, how does a transmission line has to be designed in order to allow this amount of information to be transmitted without mistakes in a noise-free way? So these are the two aspects. One has always called the one aspect the quantitative aspect of information, the other the semantic aspect of information, but this is not a very correct type of expression. The one is really an information capacity, it tells you more about language than about any message in that language, whereas the other tells you why did certain messages come about. The messages have a meaning, that's semantics, but they have more than that. They are to be evaluated and the messages for life had to become evaluated... as we have seen, selection is a consequence of replication. Now, when you ask how did this transition occur from the non-life to life, then you certainly needed already a quite developed chemistry before life, the first steps of life, of forming information... it's language, forming in-for-mation... before they could occur. So the first reaction systems certainly were quite chaotic, were quite unregulated. And through this replication system there could be a build-up of information, and that's the essence of life.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: information theory, Claude Elwood Shannon, Norbert Wiener

Duration: 3 minutes, 33 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 29 September 2010