The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life

The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life

The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life

The Touchstone of Life: Molecular Information, Cell Communication, and the Foundations of Life


No one can escape a sense of wonder when looking at an organism from within. From the humblest amoeba to man, from the smallest cell organelle to the amazing human brain, life presents us with example after example of highly ordered cellular matter, precisely organized and shaped to perform coordinated functions. But where does this order spring from? How does a living organism manage to do what nonliving things cannot do--bring forth and maintain all that order against the unrelenting, disordering pressures of the universe? In The Touchstone of Life, world-renowned biophysicist Werner Loewenstein seeks answers to these ancient riddles by applying information theory to recent discoveries in molecular biology. Taking us into a fascinating microscopic world, he lays bare an all-pervading communication network inside and between our cells--a web of extraordinary beauty, where molecular information flows in gracefully interlaced circles. Loewenstein then takes us on an exhilarating journey along that web and we meet its leading actors, the macromolecules, and see how they extract order out of the erratic quantum world; and through the powerful lens of information theory, we are let in on their trick, the most dazzling of magician's acts, whereby they steal form out of formlessness. The Touchstone of Life flashes with fresh insights into the mystery of life. Boldly straddling the line between biology and physics, the book offers a breathtaking view of that hidden world where molecular information turns the wheels of life. Loewenstein makes these complex scientific subjects lucid and fascinating, as he sheds light on the most fundamental aspects of our existence.


Mark Twain once remarked that when he penned his Pudd'nhead Wilson "he was unable to follow his original plot because several of the characters started to develop wills of their own and did things quite different from what he had planned for them." I found myself here in the same fix. No sooner had I settled on a plot than my main character, Information, acted up and began to commandeer all roles.

I originally intended to write a book about intercellular communication-- about how the cells in an organism exchange information among each other--a question I had worked on for the past thirty years. But as I got to the heart of it, which required me to track the spoor of intercellular information to its source, a picture materialized seemingly out of the blue: a continuous intra-and intercellular communication network where, with dna at the core, molecular information flowed in gracefully interlaced circles. That apparition had an allure I could not resist, and so this became a book about information.

I was twice fortunate. First, the spectacular advances in molecular biology of the past three decades had paved the way for my information tracking; they had laid bare the cells' macromolecular information core and were just beginning to break the seal of an information shell where molecular carriers, large and small, swarm all over the organismic map. Second, information theory, a thriving branch of mathematics and physics, allowed me to view this information flow in a new light.

I shall argue that this information flow, not energy per se, is the prime mover of life--that molecular information flowing in circles brings forth the organiza-

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