Biological Theory

, Volume 14, Issue 4, pp 224–246 | Cite as

A History of Autocatalytic Sets

A Tribute to Stuart Kauffman
  • Wim HordijkEmail author
Historical Essay


This year we celebrated Stuart Kauffman’s 80th birthday. Kauffman has contributed many original ideas to science. One of them is that of autocatalytic sets in the context of the origin of life. An autocatalytic set is a self-sustaining chemical reaction network in which all the molecules mutually catalyze each other’s formation from a basic food source. This notion is often seen as a “counterargument” against the dominant genetics-first view of the origin of life, focusing more on metabolism instead. The original notion was introduced back in 1971, but it has taken several decades for this idea to really catch on. Thanks to theoretical as well as experimental progress in more recent research on autocatalytic sets, especially over the past 15 years, the idea now seems to be gaining significant interest and support. In this tribute to Kauffman’s work and ideas, a brief history of research on autocatalytic sets is presented.


Autocatalytic sets Stuart Kauffman Origin of life 



I would like to thank the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research (Klosterneuburg, Austria) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 ATTRACT program for financial support, Mike Steel for the longstanding and highly productive collaboration (and for commenting on an earlier version of this manuscript), and Stuart Kauffman for being a friend, colleague, and mentor.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The author explicitly and intentionally declares a conflict of interest with the RNA world hypothesis for the origin of life.


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition ResearchKlosterneuburgAustria

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