The definition of life has long been a challenge for scientists and philosophers. This is partially because life is a process, not a substance. This is complicated by a lack of knowledge of the characteristics of living entities, if any, that may have developed outside of Earth. Philosophical definitions of life have also been put forward, with similar difficulties on how to distinguish living things from the non-living. Legal definitions of life have also been described and debated, though these generally focus on the decision to declare a human dead, and the legal ramifications of this decision. As many as 123 definitions of life have been compiled. One definition seems to be favored by NASA: "a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution". More simply, life is, "matter that can reproduce itself and evolve as survival dictates".
The characteristics of life
Since there is no unequivocal definition of life, most current definitions in biology are descriptive. Life is considered a characteristic of something that preserves, furthers or reinforces its existence in the given environment. This characteristic exhibits all or most of the following traits:
Homeostasis: regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, sweating to reduce temperature
Organization: being structurally composed of one or more cells – the basic units of life
Metabolism: transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life.
Growth: maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter.
Adaptation: the ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism's heredity, diet, and external factors.
Reproduction: the ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism or sexually from two parent organisms.
These complex processes, called physiological functions, have underlying physical and chemical bases, as well as signaling and control mechanisms that are essential to maintaining life.
From a physics perspective, living beings are thermodynamic systems with an organized molecular structure that can reproduce itself and evolve as survival dictates. Thermodynamically, life has been described as an open system which makes use of gradients in its surroundings to create imperfect copies of itself. Another way of putting this is to define life as "a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution", a definition adopted by a NASA committee attempting to define life for the purposes of exobiology, based on a suggestion by Carl Sagan. A major strength of this definition is that it distinguishes life by the evolutionary process rather than its chemical composition.
Whether or not viruses should be considered as alive is controversial. They are most often considered as just gene codingreplicators rather than forms of life. They have been described as "organisms at the edge of life" because they possess genes, evolve by natural selection, and replicate by making multiple copies of themselves through self-assembly. However, viruses do not metabolize and they require a host cell to make new products. Virus self-assembly within host cells has implications for the study of the origin of life, as it may support the hypothesis that life could have started as self-assembling organic molecules.
To reflect the minimum phenomena required, other biological definitions of life have been proposed, with many of these being based upon chemical systems. Biophysicists have commented that living things function on negative entropy. In other words, living processes can be viewed as a delay of the spontaneous diffusion or dispersion of the internal energy of biological molecules towards more potential microstates. In more detail, according to physicists such as John Bernal, Erwin Schrödinger, Eugene Wigner, and John Avery, life is a member of the class of phenomena that are open or continuous systems able to decrease their internal entropy at the expense of substances or free energy taken in from the environment and subsequently rejected in a degraded form. The emergence and increasing popularity of biomimetics or biomimicry (the design and production of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes) will likely redefine the boundary between natural and artificial life.
Living systems theories
Living systems are open self-organizing living things that interact with their environment. These systems are maintained by flows of information, energy, and matter.
Definition of cellular life according to Budisa, Kubyshkin and Schmidt.
Budisa, Kubyshkin and Schmidt defined cellular life as an organizational unit resting on four pillars/cornerstones: (i) energy, (ii) metabolism, (iii) information and (iv) form. This system is able to regulate and control metabolism and energy supply and contains at least one subsystem that functions as an information carrier (genetic information). Cells as self-sustaining units are parts of different populations that are involved in the unidirectional and irreversible open-ended process known as evolution.
Some scientists have proposed in the last few decades that a general living systems theory is required to explain the nature of life. Such a general theory would arise out of the ecological and biological sciences and attempt to map general principles for how all living systems work. Instead of examining phenomena by attempting to break things down into components, a general living systems theory explores phenomena in terms of dynamic patterns of the relationships of organisms with their environment.
The idea that Earth is alive is found in philosophy and religion, but the first scientific discussion of it was by the Scottish scientist James Hutton. In 1785, he stated that Earth was a superorganism and that its proper study should be physiology. Hutton is considered the father of geology, but his idea of a living Earth was forgotten in the intense reductionism of the 19th century.: 10 The Gaia hypothesis, proposed in the 1960s by scientist James Lovelock, suggests that life on Earth functions as a single organism that defines and maintains environmental conditions necessary for its survival. This hypothesis served as one of the foundations of the modern Earth system science.
Robert Rosen devoted a large part of his career, from 1958 onwards, to developing a comprehensive theory of life as a self-organizing complex system, "closed to efficient causation" He defined a system component as "a unit of organization; a part with a function, i.e., a definite relation between part and whole." He identified the "nonfractionability of components in an organism" as the fundamental difference between living systems and "biological machines." He summarized his views in his book Life Itself. Similar ideas may be found in the book Living Systems by James Grier Miller.
Life as a property of ecosystems
A systems view of life treats environmental fluxes and biological fluxes together as a "reciprocity of influence," and a reciprocal relation with environment is arguably as important for understanding life as it is for understanding ecosystems. As Harold J. Morowitz (1992) explains it, life is a property of an ecological system rather than a single organism or species. He argues that an ecosystemic definition of life is preferable to a strictly biochemical or physical one. Robert Ulanowicz (2009) highlights mutualism as the key to understand the systemic, order-generating behavior of life and ecosystems.
Complex systems biology
Complex systems biology (CSB) is a field of science that studies the emergence of complexity in functional organisms from the viewpoint of dynamic systems theory. The latter is also often called systems biology and aims to understand the most fundamental aspects of life. A closely related approach to CSB and systems biology called relational biology is concerned mainly with understanding life processes in terms of the most important relations, and categories of such relations among the essential functional components of organisms; for multicellular organisms, this has been defined as "categorical biology", or a model representation of organisms as a category theory of biological relations, as well as an algebraic topology of the functional organization of living organisms in terms of their dynamic, complex networks of metabolic, genetic, and epigenetic processes and signaling pathways. Alternative but closely related approaches focus on the interdependance of constraints, where constraints can be either molecular, such as enzymes, or macroscopic, such as the geometry of a bone or of the vascular system.
It has also been argued that the evolution of order in living systems and certain physical systems obeys a common fundamental principle termed the Darwinian dynamic. The Darwinian dynamic was formulated by first considering how macroscopic order is generated in a simple non-biological system far from thermodynamic equilibrium, and then extending consideration to short, replicating RNA molecules. The underlying order-generating process was concluded to be basically similar for both types of systems.
Another systemic definition called the operator theory proposes that "life is a general term for the presence of the typical closures found in organisms; the typical closures are a membrane and an autocatalytic set in the cell" and that an organism is any system with an organisation that complies with an operator type that is at least as complex as the cell. Life can also be modeled as a network of inferior negative feedbacks of regulatory mechanisms subordinated to a superior positive feedback formed by the potential of expansion and reproduction.
Some of the earliest theories of life were materialist, holding that all that exists is matter, and that life is merely a complex form or arrangement of matter. Empedocles (430 BC) argued that everything in the universe is made up of a combination of four eternal "elements" or "roots of all": earth, water, air, and fire. All change is explained by the arrangement and rearrangement of these four elements. The various forms of life are caused by an appropriate mixture of elements.
Democritus (460 BC) thought that the essential characteristic of life is having a soul (psyche). Like other ancient writers, he was attempting to explain what makes something a living thing. His explanation was that fiery atoms make a soul in exactly the same way atoms and void account for any other thing. He elaborates on fire because of the apparent connection between life and heat, and because fire moves.
Plato's world of eternal and unchanging Forms, imperfectly represented in matter by a divine Artisan, contrasts sharply with the various mechanistic Weltanschauungen, of which atomism was, by the fourth century at least, the most prominent ... This debate persisted throughout the ancient world. Atomistic mechanism got a shot in the arm from Epicurus ... while the Stoics adopted a divine teleology ... The choice seems simple: either show how a structured, regular world could arise out of undirected processes, or inject intelligence into the system.
— R.J. Hankinson, Cause and Explanation in Ancient Greek Thought
The mechanistic materialism that originated in ancient Greece was revived and revised by the French philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650), who held that animals and humans were assemblages of parts that together functioned as a machine. This idea was developed further by Julien Offray de La Mettrie (1709–1750) in his book L'Homme Machine.
At the beginning of the 20th century Stéphane Leduc (1853–1939) promoted the idea that biological processes could be understood in terms of physics and chemistry, and that their growth resembled that of inorganic crystals immersed in solutions of sodium silicate. His ideas, set out in his book La biologie synthétique was widely dismissed during his lifetime, but has incurred a resurgence of interest in the work of Russell, Barge and colleagues.
Hylomorphism is a theory first expressed by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (322 BC). The application of hylomorphism to biology was important to Aristotle, and biology is extensively covered in his extant writings. In this view, everything in the material universe has both matter and form, and the form of a living thing is its soul (Greek psyche, Latin anima). There are three kinds of souls: the vegetative soul of plants, which causes them to grow and decay and nourish themselves, but does not cause motion and sensation; the animal soul, which causes animals to move and feel; and the rational soul, which is the source of consciousness and reasoning, which (Aristotle believed) is found only in man. Each higher soul has all of the attributes of the lower ones. Aristotle believed that while matter can exist without form, form cannot exist without matter, and that therefore the soul cannot exist without the body.
This account is consistent with teleological explanations of life, which account for phenomena in terms of purpose or goal-directedness. Thus, the whiteness of the polar bear's coat is explained by its purpose of camouflage. The direction of causality (from the future to the past) is in contradiction with the scientific evidence for natural selection, which explains the consequence in terms of a prior cause. Biological features are explained not by looking at future optimal results, but by looking at the past evolutionary history of a species, which led to the natural selection of the features in question.
Spontaneous generation was the belief that living organisms can form without descent from similar organisms. Typically, the idea was that certain forms such as fleas could arise from inanimate matter such as dust or the supposed seasonal generation of mice and insects from mud or garbage.
The theory of spontaneous generation was proposed by Aristotle, who compiled and expanded the work of prior natural philosophers and the various ancient explanations of the appearance of organisms; it was considered the best explanation for two millennia. It was decisively dispelled by the experiments of Louis Pasteur in 1859, who expanded upon the investigations of predecessors such as Francesco Redi. Disproof of the traditional ideas of spontaneous generation is no longer controversial among biologists.
During the 1850s, Hermann von Helmholtz, anticipated by Julius Robert von Mayer, demonstrated that no energy is lost in muscle movement, suggesting that there were no "vital forces" necessary to move a muscle. These results led to the abandonment of scientific interest in vitalistic theories, especially after Buchner's demonstration that alcoholic fermentation could occur in cell-free extracts of yeast.
Nonetheless, the belief still exists in pseudoscientific theories such as homeopathy, which interprets diseases and sickness as caused by disturbances in a hypothetical vital force or life force.
More than 99% of all species of life forms, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct.
Although the number of Earth's catalogued species of lifeforms is between 1.2 million and 2 million, the total number of species in the planet is uncertain. Estimates range from 8 million to 100 million, with a more narrow range between 10 and 14 million, but it may be as high as 1 trillion (with only one-thousandth of one percent of the species described) according to studies realized in May 2016. The total number of related DNAbase pairs on Earth is estimated at 5.0 x 1037 and weighs 50 billion tonnes. In comparison, the total mass of the biosphere has been estimated to be as much as 4 TtC (trillion tons of carbon). In July 2016, scientists reported identifying a set of 355 genes from the Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA) of all organisms living on Earth.
All known life forms share fundamental molecular mechanisms, reflecting their common descent; based on these observations, hypotheses on the origin of life attempt to find a mechanism explaining the formation of a universal common ancestor, from simple organic molecules via pre-cellular life to protocells and metabolism. Models have been divided into "genes-first" and "metabolism-first" categories, but a recent trend is the emergence of hybrid models that combine both categories.
However, because genes and proteins are both required to produce the other, the problem of considering which came first is like that of the chicken or the egg. Most scientists have adopted the hypothesis that because of this, it is unlikely that genes and proteins arose independently.
Therefore, a possibility, first suggested by Francis Crick, is that the first life was based on RNA, which has the DNA-like properties of information storage and the catalytic properties of some proteins. This is called the RNA world hypothesis, and it is supported by the observation that many of the most critical components of cells (those that evolve the slowest) are composed mostly or entirely of RNA. Also, many critical cofactors (ATP, Acetyl-CoA, NADH, etc.) are either nucleotides or substances clearly related to them. The catalytic properties of RNA had not yet been demonstrated when the hypothesis was first proposed, but they were confirmed by Thomas Cech in 1986.
One issue with the RNA world hypothesis is that synthesis of RNA from simple inorganic precursors is more difficult than for other organic molecules. One reason for this is that RNA precursors are very stable and react with each other very slowly under ambient conditions, and it has also been proposed that living organisms consisted of other molecules before RNA. However, the successful synthesis of certain RNA molecules under the conditions that existed prior to life on Earth has been achieved by adding alternative precursors in a specified order with the precursor phosphate present throughout the reaction. This study makes the RNA world hypothesis more plausible.
In 2009, experiments demonstrated Darwinian evolution of a two-component system of RNA enzymes (ribozymes) in vitro. The work was performed in the laboratory of Gerald Joyce, who stated "This is the first example, outside of biology, of evolutionary adaptation in a molecular genetic system."
The diversity of life on Earth is a result of the dynamic interplay between genetic opportunity, metabolic capability, environmental challenges, and symbiosis. For most of its existence, Earth's habitable environment has been dominated by microorganisms and subjected to their metabolism and evolution. As a consequence of these microbial activities, the physical-chemical environment on Earth has been changing on a geologic time scale, thereby affecting the path of evolution of subsequent life. For example, the release of molecular oxygen by cyanobacteria as a by-product of photosynthesis induced global changes in the Earth's environment. Because oxygen was toxic to most life on Earth at the time, this posed novel evolutionary challenges, and ultimately resulted in the formation of Earth's major animal and plant species. This interplay between organisms and their environment is an inherent feature of living systems.
The biosphere is the global sum of all ecosystems. It can also be termed as the zone of life on Earth, a closed system (apart from solar and cosmic radiation and heat from the interior of the Earth), and largely self-regulating. By the most general biophysiological definition, the biosphere is the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships, including their interaction with the elements of the lithosphere, geosphere, hydrosphere, and atmosphere.
Life forms live in every part of the Earth's biosphere, including soil, hot springs, inside rocks at least 19 km (12 mi) deep underground, the deepest parts of the ocean, and at least 64 km (40 mi) high in the atmosphere. Under certain test conditions, life forms have been observed to thrive in the near-weightlessness of space and to survive in the vacuum of outer space. Life forms appear to thrive in the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the Earth's oceans. Other researchers reported related studies that life forms thrive inside rocks up to 580 m (1,900 ft; 0.36 mi) below the sea floor under 2,590 m (8,500 ft; 1.61 mi) of ocean off the coast of the northwestern United States, as well as 2,400 m (7,900 ft; 1.5 mi) beneath the seabed off Japan. In August 2014, scientists confirmed the existence of life forms living 800 m (2,600 ft; 0.50 mi) below the ice of Antarctica. According to one researcher, "You can find microbes everywhere—they're extremely adaptable to conditions, and survive wherever they are."
In a general sense, biospheres are any closed, self-regulating systems containing ecosystems. This includes artificial biospheres such as Biosphere 2 and BIOS-3, and potentially ones on other planets or moons.
The inert components of an ecosystem are the physical and chemical factors necessary for life—energy (sunlight or chemical energy), water, heat, atmosphere, gravity, nutrients, and ultravioletsolar radiation protection. In most ecosystems, the conditions vary during the day and from one season to the next. To live in most ecosystems, then, organisms must be able to survive a range of conditions, called the "range of tolerance." Outside that are the "zones of physiological stress," where the survival and reproduction are possible but not optimal. Beyond these zones are the "zones of intolerance," where survival and reproduction of that organism is unlikely or impossible. Organisms that have a wide range of tolerance are more widely distributed than organisms with a narrow range of tolerance.
To survive, selected microorganisms can assume forms that enable them to withstand freezing, complete desiccation, starvation, high levels of radiation exposure, and other physical or chemical challenges. These microorganisms may survive exposure to such conditions for weeks, months, years, or even centuries.Extremophiles are microbial life forms that thrive outside the ranges where life is commonly found. They excel at exploiting uncommon sources of energy. While all organisms are composed of nearly identical molecules, evolution has enabled such microbes to cope with this wide range of physical and chemical conditions. Characterization of the structure and metabolic diversity of microbial communities in such extreme environments is ongoing.
DNA stores biological information. The DNA backbone is resistant to cleavage, and both strands of the double-stranded structure store the same biological information. Biological information is replicated as the two strands are separated. A significant portion of DNA (more than 98% for humans) is non-coding, meaning that these sections do not serve as patterns for protein sequences.
The two strands of DNA run in opposite directions to each other and are therefore anti-parallel. Attached to each sugar is one of four types of nucleobases (informally, bases). It is the sequence of these four nucleobases along the backbone that encodes biological information. Under the genetic code, RNA strands are translated to specify the sequence of amino acids within proteins. These RNA strands are initially created using DNA strands as a template in a process called transcription.
The first known attempt to classify organisms was conducted by the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC), who classified all living organisms known at that time as either a plant or an animal, based mainly on their ability to move. He also distinguished animals with blood from animals without blood (or at least without red blood), which can be compared with the concepts of vertebrates and invertebrates respectively, and divided the blooded animals into five groups: viviparous quadrupeds (mammals), oviparous quadrupeds (reptiles and amphibians), birds, fishes and whales. The bloodless animals were also divided into five groups: cephalopods, crustaceans, insects (which included the spiders, scorpions, and centipedes, in addition to what we define as insects today), shelled animals (such as most molluscs and echinoderms), and "zoophytes" (animals that resemble plants). Though Aristotle's work in zoology was not without errors, it was the grandest biological synthesis of the time and remained the ultimate authority for many centuries after his death.
The exploration of the Americas revealed large numbers of new plants and animals that needed descriptions and classification. In the latter part of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th, careful study of animals commenced and was gradually extended until it formed a sufficient body of knowledge to serve as an anatomical basis for classification.
In the late 1740s, Carl Linnaeus introduced his system of binomial nomenclature for the classification of species. Linnaeus attempted to improve the composition and reduce the length of the previously used many-worded names by abolishing unnecessary rhetoric, introducing new descriptive terms and precisely defining their meaning. The Linnaean classification has eight levels: domains, kingdoms, phyla, class, order, family, genus, and species.
The fungi were originally treated as plants. For a short period Linnaeus had classified them in the taxon Vermes in Animalia, but later placed them back in Plantae. Copeland classified the Fungi in his Protoctista, thus partially avoiding the problem but acknowledging their special status. The problem was eventually solved by Whittaker, when he gave them their own kingdom in his five-kingdom system. Evolutionary history shows that the fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants.
As microbiology, molecular biology and virology developed, non-cellular reproducing agents were discovered, such as viruses and viroids. Whether these are considered alive has been a matter of debate; viruses lack characteristics of life such as cell membranes, metabolism and the ability to grow or respond to their environments. Viruses can still be classed into "species" based on their biology and genetics, but many aspects of such a classification remain controversial.
In May 2016, scientists reported that 1 trillion species are estimated to be on Earth currently with only one-thousandth of one percent described.
The original Linnaean system has been modified over time as follows:
Cells are the basic unit of structure in every living thing, and all cells arise from pre-existing cells by division. Cell theory was formulated by Henri Dutrochet, Theodor Schwann, Rudolf Virchow and others during the early nineteenth century, and subsequently became widely accepted. The activity of an organism depends on the total activity of its cells, with energy flow occurring within and between them. Cells contain hereditary information that is carried forward as a genetic code during cell division.
There are two primary types of cells. Prokaryotes lack a nucleus and other membrane-bound organelles, although they have circular DNA and ribosomes. Bacteria and Archaea are two domains of prokaryotes. The other primary type of cells are the eukaryotes, which have distinct nuclei bound by a nuclear membrane and membrane-bound organelles, including mitochondria, chloroplasts, lysosomes, rough and smooth endoplasmic reticulum, and vacuoles. In addition, they possess organized chromosomes that store genetic material. All species of large complex organisms are eukaryotes, including animals, plants and fungi, though most species of eukaryote are protistmicroorganisms. The conventional model is that eukaryotes evolved from prokaryotes, with the main organelles of the eukaryotes forming through endosymbiosis between bacteria and the progenitor eukaryotic cell.
Cells reproduce through a process of cell division in which the parent cell divides into two or more daughter cells. For prokaryotes, cell division occurs through a process of fission in which the DNA is replicated, then the two copies are attached to parts of the cell membrane. In eukaryotes, a more complex process of mitosis is followed. However, the end result is the same; the resulting cell copies are identical to each other and to the original cell (except for mutations), and both are capable of further division following an interphase period.
Multicellular organisms may have first evolved through the formation of colonies of identical cells. These cells can form group organisms through cell adhesion. The individual members of a colony are capable of surviving on their own, whereas the members of a true multi-cellular organism have developed specializations, making them dependent on the remainder of the organism for survival. Such organisms are formed clonally or from a single germ cell that is capable of forming the various specialized cells that form the adult organism. This specialization allows multicellular organisms to exploit resources more efficiently than single cells. In January 2016, scientists reported that, about 800 million years ago, a minor genetic change in a single molecule, called GK-PID, may have allowed organisms to go from a single cell organism to one of many cells.
Cells have evolved methods to perceive and respond to their microenvironment, thereby enhancing their adaptability. Cell signaling coordinates cellular activities, and hence governs the basic functions of multicellular organisms. Signaling between cells can occur through direct cell contact using juxtacrine signalling, or indirectly through the exchange of agents as in the endocrine system. In more complex organisms, coordination of activities can occur through a dedicated nervous system.
Though life is confirmed only on Earth, many think that extraterrestrial life is not only plausible, but probable or inevitable. Other planets and moons in the Solar System and other planetary systems are being examined for evidence of having once supported simple life, and projects such as SETI are trying to detect radio transmissions from possible alien civilizations. Other locations within the Solar System that may host microbial life include the subsurface of Mars, the upper atmosphere of Venus, and subsurface oceans on some of the moons of the giant planets.
Beyond the Solar System, the region around another main-sequence star that could support Earth-like life on an Earth-like planet is known as the habitable zone. The inner and outer radii of this zone vary with the luminosity of the star, as does the time interval during which the zone survives. Stars more massive than the Sun have a larger habitable zone, but remain on the Sun-like "main sequence" of stellar evolution for a shorter time interval. Small red dwarfs have the opposite problem, with a smaller habitable zone that is subject to higher levels of magnetic activity and the effects of tidal locking from close orbits. Hence, stars in the intermediate mass range such as the Sun may have a greater likelihood for Earth-like life to develop. The location of the star within a galaxy may also affect the likelihood of life forming. Stars in regions with a greater abundance of heavier elements that can form planets, in combination with a low rate of potentially habitat-damaging supernova events, are predicted to have a higher probability of hosting planets with complex life. The variables of the Drake equation are used to discuss the conditions in planetary systems where civilization is most likely to exist. Use of the equation to predict the amount of extraterrestrial life, however, is difficult; because many of the variables are unknown, the equation functions as more of a mirror to what its user already thinks. As a result, the number of civilizations in the galaxy can be estimated as low as 9.1 x 10−13, suggesting a minimum value of 1, or as high as 15.6 million (0.156 x 109); for the calculations, see Drake equation.
Artificial life is the simulation of any aspect of life, as through computers, robotics, or biochemistry. The study of artificial life imitates traditional biology by recreating some aspects of biological phenomena. Scientists study the logic of living systems by creating artificial environments—seeking to understand the complex information processing that defines such systems. While life is, by definition, alive, artificial life is generally referred to as data confined to a digital environment and existence.
Synthetic biology is a new area of biotechnology that combines science and biological engineering. The common goal is the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature. Synthetic biology includes the broad redefinition and expansion of biotechnology, with the ultimate goals of being able to design and build engineered biological systems that process information, manipulate chemicals, fabricate materials and structures, produce energy, provide food, and maintain and enhance human health and the environment.
Animal corpses, like this African buffalo, are recycled by the ecosystem, providing energy and nutrients for living creatures
One of the challenges in defining death is in distinguishing it from life. Death would seem to refer to either the moment life ends, or when the state that follows life begins. However, determining when death has occurred is difficult, as cessation of life functions is often not simultaneous across organ systems. Such determination therefore requires drawing conceptual lines between life and death. This is problematic, however, because there is little consensus over how to define life. The nature of death has for millennia been a central concern of the world's religious traditions and of philosophical inquiry. Many religions maintain faith in either a kind of afterlife or reincarnation for the soul, or resurrection of the body at a later date.
Extinction is the process by which a group of taxa or species dies out, reducing biodiversity. The moment of extinction is generally considered the death of the last individual of that species. Because a species' potential range may be very large, determining this moment is difficult, and is usually done retrospectively after a period of apparent absence. Species become extinct when they are no longer able to survive in changing habitat or against superior competition. In Earth's history, over 99% of all the species that have ever lived are extinct; however, mass extinctions may have accelerated evolution by providing opportunities for new groups of organisms to diversify.
Fossils are the preserved remains or traces of animals, plants, and other organisms from the remote past. The totality of fossils, both discovered and undiscovered, and their placement in fossil-containing rock formations and sedimentary layers (strata) is known as the fossil record. A preserved specimen is called a fossil if it is older than the arbitrary date of 10,000 years ago. Hence, fossils range in age from the youngest at the start of the Holocene Epoch to the oldest from the Archaean Eon, up to 3.4 billion years old.
^The "evolution" and classification of viruses and other similar forms is still uncertain. Therefore, this listing may be paraphyletic if cellular life evolved from non-cellular life, or polyphyletic if the most recent common ancestor were not included.
^Infectious protein molecules prions are not considered living organisms, but can be described as "organism-comparable organic structures".
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