Paper abstract

A formal model of autocatalytic sets emerging in an RNA replicator system

Wim Hordijk and Mike Steel

Journal of Systems Chemistry 4:3, 2013.

Background: The idea that autocatalytic sets played an important role in the origin of life is not new. However, the likelihood of autocatalytic sets emerging spontaneously has long been debated. Recently, progress has been made along two different lines. Experimental results have shown that autocatalytic sets can indeed emerge in real chemical systems, and theoretical work has shown that the existence of such self-sustaining sets is highly likely in formal models of chemical systems. Here, we take a first step towards merging these two lines of work by constructing and investigating a formal model of a real chemical system of RNA replicators exhibiting autocatalytic sets.
Results: We show that the formal model accurately reproduces recent experimental results on an RNA replicator system, in particular how the system goes through a sequence of larger and larger autocatalytic sets, and how a cooperative (autocatalytic) system can outcompete an equivalent selfish system. Moreover, the model provides additional insights that could not be obtained from experiments alone, and it suggests several experimentally testable hypotheses.
Conclusions: Given these additional insights and predictions, the modeling framework provides a better and more detailed understanding of the nature of chemical systems in general and the emergence of autocatalytic sets in particular. This provides an important first step in combining experimental and theoretical work on autocatalytic sets in the context of the orgin of life.