Simple Evolution of Complex Crystal Species
Cairns-Smith has proposed that life began as structural patterns in clays that self-replicated during cycles of crystal growth and fragmentation. Complex, evolved crystal forms could then have catalyzed the formation of a more advanced genetic material. A crucial weakness of this theory is that it is unclear how complex crystals might arise through Darwinian selection. Here we investigate whether complex crystal patterns could evolve using a model system for crystal growth, DNA tile crystals, that is amenable to both theoretical and experimental inquiry. It was previously shown that in principle, the evolution of crystals assembled from a set of thousands of DNA tiles under very specific environmental conditions could produce arbitrarily complex patterns. Here we show that evolution driven only by the dearth of one monomer type could produce complex crystals from just 12 monomer types. The proposed mechanism of evolution is simple enough to test experimentally and is sufficiently general that it may apply to other DNA tile crystals or even to natural crystals, suggesting that complex crystals could evolve from simple starting materials because of relative differences in concentrations of the materials needed for growth.
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