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Adaptability of Life
by Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover

How much do we know about life? When modern science was in its infancy, biologists confidently declared that they were very close to unraveling the mystery of life. The division of matter into organic (with a complex inner structure) and inorganic (with a relatively simple structure) led biologists to believe that the basis of life is chemical. They believed that with more time and research, they would finally uncover all its complexities and reduce all of life to some simple chemical rules.

As the years have passed and science has advanced, the new generation of scientists is considerably more humble. Biochemical research continues unabated, but scientists more readily admit that life is a wonder and a miracle that can't easily be reduced to a chemical formula.

Just one example: Biologists have discovered over a hundred species of "extremophiles", which live under conditions that were originally thought to be too extreme for life. Some live at freezing temperatures deep under the arctic ice. Others live in highly acidic environments, some at very low pressures at mountain peaks, or at extremely high pressures deep underground.

There is a class of microorganisms known as thermophiles, that survive and thrive in very hot water (often near the boiling point), around the openings of volcano vents, deep under the sea. They can also be found in geysers and hot springs. These organisms oxidize sulfur as an energy source and release sulfuric acid as a waste product. Extensive research with these bacteria shows that their enzymes and proteins have a structure completely different from ordinary proteins, which allows them to survive under extreme conditions. In fact, the enzymes derived from these creatures perform many useful tasks in science and industry, because of their ability to withstand extreme temperatures and pressures.

The discovery of these "mystery creatures" shows that life can exist under conditions that were once believed to be impossible. The Prophets of the Bible prophesy that in the times of Redemption, life will undergo extreme changes, which are considered impossible today. For example, our bodies will no longer need food but will be sustained by the spirit alone. We will no longer age and will live forever. From a biological standpoint, these prophecies sound highly improbable, and many interpret them as allegories.

However, the recent discoveries of oceanographers has broadened our definition of life. We've been shown that our conceptions of the conditions needed for life to exist are subject to change. For now, we accept the prophecies of Redemption on faith. But who knows, the day will come when we won't need to accept them on faith; they'll be part of the new scientific reality.

Prof. Yirmiyahu Branover is chairman of the Center of Magnetohydrodynamic Studies and Training at Ben-Gurion University.



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