Approaches to the Origin of Life on Earth

Kauffman, Stuart A. “Approaches to the origin of life on earth.” Life 1, no. 1 (2011): 34-48.

I discuss briefly the history of the origin of life field, focusing on the “Miller” era of prebiotic synthesis, through the “Orgel” era seeking enzyme free template replication of single stranded RNA or similar polynucleotides, to the RNA world era with one of its foci on a ribozyme with the capacity to act as a polymerase able to copy itself. I give the history of the independent invention in 1971 by T. Ganti, M. Eigen and myself of three alternative theories of the origin of molecular replication: the Chemotron, the Hypercycle, and Collectively Autocatalytic Sets, CAS, respectively. To date, only collectively autocatalytic DNA, RNA, and peptide sets have achieved molecular reproduction of polymers. Theoretical work and experimental work on CAS both support their plausibility as models of openly evolvable protocells, if housed in dividing compartments such as dividing liposomes. My own further hypothesis beyond that of CAS in themselves, of their formation as a phase transition in complex chemical reaction systems of substrates, reactions and products, where the molecules in the system are candidates to catalyze the very same reactions, now firmly established as theorems, awaits experimental proof using combinatorial chemistry to make libraries of stochastic DNA, RNA and/or polypeptides, or other classes of molecules to test the hypothesis that molecular polymer reproduction has emerged as a true phase transition in complex chemical reaction systems. I remark that my colleague Marc Ballivet of the University of Geneva and I, may have issued the first publications discussing what became combinatorial chemistry, in published issued patents in 1987, 1989 and later, in this field.

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