The astonishing efficiency of life

The astonishing efficiency of life
Neon cells. Credit: Zighuo.he, via Wikimedia Commons

All life on earth performs computations – and all computations require energy. From single-celled amoeba to multicellular organisms like humans, one of the most basic biological computations common across life is translation: processing information from a genome and writing that into proteins.

Translation, it turns out, is highly efficient.

In a new paper published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, SFI researchers explore the thermodynamic of . The work is part of a themed issue titled "Re-conceptualizing the origins of life."

To understand how life evolved on earth, we need to first understand the constraints that biological systems have faced over time. One constraint which hasn't been widely explored is how the laws of thermodynamics restrict biological function, and whether favors organisms with higher computational efficiency.

To discover just how efficient translation is, the researchers started with Landauer's Bound. This is a principle of thermodynamics establishing the minimum amount of energy that any physical process needs to perform a computation.

"What we found is that biological translation is roughly 20 times less efficient than the absolute lower physical bound," says lead author Christopher Kempes, an SFI Omidyar Fellow. "And that's about 100,000 times more efficient than a computer." DNA replication, another basic computation common across , is about 165 times worse than Landauer's Bound. "That's not as efficient as biological translation, but still stunningly good compared to computers."

Scaling up to calculate the thermodynamic efficiency of higher-level biological computations like thought, and to understand how important efficiency is to natural selection, offer challenging questions for further research.

"Ultimately, we want to couple all this with computer science theory," says Professor David Wolpert, a co-author, "not only to exploit these kinds of things for computer science, but also to see if science theory has anything to tell us about cells."


Explore further

Physicist finds that E. coli replicate close to thermodynamic limits of efficiency

More information: Christopher P. Kempes et al. The thermodynamic efficiency of computations made in cells across the range of life, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences (2017). DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2016.0343
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Nov 17, 2017
Scaling up to calculate the thermodynamic efficiency of higher-level biological computations like thought, and to understand how important efficiency is to natural selection, offer challenging questions for further research.


It already has to be pretty high, considering there are on the order of 100 trillion computational units in the brain, which operates at roughly 25 Watts, compared to around 1 billion transistors in a CPU that draws the same amount of power.

And a transistor is nothing compared to the complexity of a neuron/synapse in terms of information processing, which is why processors have to operate at gigahertz speed to get anything done while the brain waves rarely exceed 100 Hz.


Nov 19, 2017
Good points E.

Of course the biggest difference is, no predators trying to eat the computers... Yet!

A billion years of avoiding getting eaten has encouraged continuous self-defense design upgrades.

Cause the only way you get to be an ancestor is surviving long-enough to reproduce.

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