The Hypercycle


, Volume 64, Issue 11, pp 541-565

First online:

A principle of natural self-organization

Part A: Emergence of the hypercycle
  • Manfred EigenAffiliated withMax-Planck-Institut für biophysikalische Chemie
  • , Peter SchusterAffiliated withInstitut für theoretische Chemie und Strahlenchemie der Universität

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This paper is the first part of a trilogy, which comprises a detailed study of a special type of functional organization and demonstrates its relevance with respect to the origin and evolution of life. Self-replicative macromolecules, such as RNA or DNA in a suitable environment exhibit a behavior, which we may call Darwinian and which can be formally represented by the concept of the quasi-species. A quasi-species is defined as a given distribution of macromolecular species with closely interrelated sequences, dominated by one or several (degenerate) master copies. External constraints enforce the selection of the best adapted distribution, commonly referred to as the wild-type. Most important for Darwinian behavior are the criteria for internal stability of the quasi-species. If these criteria are violated, the information stored in the nucleotide sequence of the master copy will disintegrate irreversibly leading to an error catastrophy. As a consequence, selection and evolution of RNA or DNA molecules is limited with respect to the amount of information that can be stored in a single replicative unit. An analysis of experimental data regarding RNA and DNA replication at various levels of organization reveals, that a sufficient amount of information for the build up of a translation machinery can be gained only via integration of several different replicative units (or reproductive cycles) through functional linkages. A stable functional integration then will raise the system to a new level of organization and thereby enlarge its information capacity considerably. The hypercycle appears to be such a form of organization.