systems concept which entails automatic reproduction and maintenance

Autopoiesis refers to life and other self-organising systems. The word means "self creation or self-production". It refers to a system which can reproduce and sustain itself.

3D representation of a living cell during the process of mitosis, example of an autopoietic system.

The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to define the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells. Since then the concept has also been applied to systems theory and sociology.

What is life?


Autopoiesis was a modern definition for life, plus any other systems with lifelike properties.[1] To qualify for the name autopoiesis a system would need to show three main features:

  1. The production of their own components
  2. The correct assembly of these components
  3. Continuous repair and maintenance of their own existence.

Roth commented that "In short, organisms are self-reproducing and self-maintaining, or 'autopoietic', systems".[2] This approach makes use of molecular biology ideas and systems science ideas, but it does not refer to the particular way life is organised on Earth. This is because the authors thought it was possible for machines to have those features, and for other types of life to exist.


  1. Maturana H. & Varela F. 1980. Autopoiesis and cognition: the realization of the living. Boston: Reidel.
  2. Roth G. 2013. The long evolution of brains and minds. Heidelberg: Springer. p41, 48