Spontaneous Formation of Functional Structures in Messy Environments

Even though prebiotic chemistry initially deals with simple molecules, its composition rapidly gains complexity with oligomerization. Starting with, e.g., 20 monomers (such as the 20 proteinogenic amino acids), we expect 400 different dimers, 3,200,000 pentamers, or more than 1013 decamers. Hence, the starting conditions are very messy but also form a very powerful pool of potentially functional oligomers. A selecting structure (a "selector" such as membrane multilayers or vesicles) may pick and accumulate those molecules from the pool that fulfill a simple function (such as the suitability to integrate into a bilayer membrane). If this "selector" is, in turn, subject to a superimposed selection in a periodic process, the accumulated oligomers may be further trimmed to fulfill more complex functions, which improve the survival rate of the selectors. Successful oligomers will be passed from generation to generation and further improved in subsequent steps. After thousands of generations, the selector, together with its integrated oligomers, can form a functional unit of considerable order and complexity. The actual power of this process of random formation and selection has already been shown in laboratory experiments. In this concept paper, earlier results are summarized and brought into a new context.


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