A History of Autocatalytic Sets

A Tribute to Stuart Kauffman

Abstract

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.

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Fig. 1

(From Eigen (1971, p. 499))

Fig. 2

(From Farmer et al. (1986, p. 53))

Fig. 3

(From Patzke and von Kiedrowski (2007))

Fig. 4

(From Jain and Krishna (2002))

Fig. 5

(From Segré et al. (1998a))

Fig. 6

(From Ashkenasy et al. (2004))

Fig. 7

(Figure and caption from Martin and Russell (2007))

Fig. 8

(From Serra et al. (2014))

Fig. 9

(From Hordijk et al. (2012))

Fig. 10

(From Vaidya et al. (2012))

Fig. 11

(From Tanaka et al. (2014))

Fig. 12

(Produced with iPath (Darzi et al. 2018))

Fig. 13

(From Cazzolla Gatti et al. (2018))

Fig. 14

(From Hordijk et al. (2018a))

Notes

  1. 1.

    A popular version of this book, for a general audience, was published two years later (Kauffman 1995).

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Acknowledgments

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.

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Correspondence to Wim Hordijk.

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

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Hordijk, W. A History of Autocatalytic Sets. Biol Theory 14, 224–246 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-019-00330-w

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Keywords

  • Autocatalytic sets
  • Stuart Kauffman
  • Origin of life