In Michael Crichton's novel, The Andromeda Strain, several basic biological concepts are discussed. These concepts are those of defining life and how life operates.

What determines if something is living? Does it contain certain substances? Does it act in a certain way? Can life be something that we have not experienced on this earth? Crichton asks these questions in this what if? novel. The question of determining if something was living was addressed mid way through the novel using several inanimate objects.

"The group had finally concluded that energy conversion was the hallmark of life. All living organisms in some way took in energy-as food, or sunlight- and converted it to another form of energy, and put it to use. (Viruses were the exception to this rule, but the group [of scientists] were prepared to define viruses as nonliving.)1"

Another member of the team of scientists went on to point out that energy conversion could not necessarily define life- he used an example of a black cloth, that when subjected to light, converted light into heat. A watch, which glowed in the dark because of the decay of radium in the dials, energy conversion. Also, a piece of granite, whose life span was so great humans could not even detect changes in it. (Crichton, 195-6) So the definition of life was amorphous, at best. The definition of life is incredibly important, because Biology is the study of living things. Without a definition of what the subject matter is, one does not know exactly what one is studying.

Next, Crichton discusses how to detect life. In his story, he assembles a team of scientists of varying specialties. Bacteriology, Pathology, Clinical Microbiology, and Surgery (an anthropologist or metabolic disease specialist would have been preferred).(Crichton, 47-49) These various specialties, combined with specialized equipment and facilities for biochemistry (chemical functions within living things), pathology (tissue analysis), microbiology (study of microscopic organisms) and pharmacology (drugs and their metabolic effects).
Using this equipment, the team finds out that the organism they are studying is made up Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen and Hydrogen; 99% of known living things are made up of this combination of materials. However, the organism does not contain amino acids. This means that the research subject has no proteins- no DNA. (Crichton, 216-17)

Crichton makes us think again with this revelation. Almost all living things have DNA- even viruses. This point is again, vitally important. If in the future, contact is made with a life form not of this earth, we must have a method of determining it's nature. If it is unlike terran life, we must be able to adapt to look for new signs of life. The fact that this strain contains no DNA means that it can not carry on any normal biological functions as we know them to exist. Even more surprising, the Andromeda Strain (as the research specimen is called) contains no parts- no cellular structures. It is just one continuous substance within a contained structure in the shape of a hexagon. (Crichton, 245) Again, not life as we know it. But life, nonetheless.

In conclusion, The Andromeda Strain presents interesting ideas to the reader. These ideas that make one think about what life really is, and whether life can exist using different mechanisms than those known to man. This problem is especially important, for through the exploration of space, the probability increases, however slightly, that an alien life form at the even the most basic level will be discovered that does not hold to any previous definition of life as we know it.


BIBLIOGRAPHY
Crichton, Michael. The Andromeda Strain. New York: Ballantine Books: 1969.
ENDNOTES
1. Crichton, Michael, The Andromeda Strain. (NY: Ballantine Books,
1969) 195. All subsequent references will be in the text.