According to Gerry Joyce: "Life is a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution."
From a meta-analysis of 123 definitions of life: "Life is metabolizing material informational system with ability of self-reproduction with changes (evolution), which requires energy and suitable environment."
According to Alexander Oparin: “Any system capable of replication and mutation is alive”.
At hand are some key elements in order to match these criteria. Maintaining a Darwinian cycle requires replication, mutation, and selection. Thus, we can break down the above into 5 criteria (personal communication with Gerry Joyce).
- Life stores information
- Life reproduces its information
- Life alters that information
- Life does something with that information (uses energy)
- Life does all of this in a self-sustained manner
I would point out that the above criteria is quite different from what is currently on wikipedia described by metabolism and homeostasis. There are certainly additional criteria that certainly raise the threshold for what may be considered life. The common discussion revolves around viruses which do many of these things but not in a self-sustained way.
The question at hand then asks if cells are the minimum unit of life? What makes a cell a cell is that there is compartmentalization. The underlying reason behind this compartment is due to the necessity of tying the phenotype to the genotype. Paraphrasing using our definition of life, it links the information with the function that the information carries out. In the modern biological scheme, it keeps the proteins (phenotype) with the DNA (genotype).
The necessity of compartmentalization is negated when the phenotype is already linked with the genotype. The most frequent example is RNA where the material that carries the information is also the material that carries out its function. It tend, is reasonable to hypothesize that life can be made entirely with RNA without the need for compartmentalization (although compartmentalization certainly helps see Paegal and Joyce and Chen and Szostak).
Recent experiments by Gerry Joyce and others have been able to satisfy several of the requirements of life. The have self-replicating RNAs, that store information, that reproduce their information, that introduce alterations to their information, and do it in a self-sustained manner. What Gerry and his colleagues agree on is that their current self-replication Ribozyme system doesn't do anything particularly novel. However, by introducing a larger variety of functional elements to their ribozymes perhaps they will.