Our current understanding of evolution is so tightly linked to template-dependent replication of DNA and RNA molecules that the old idea from Oparin of a self-reproducing 'garbage bag' ('coacervate') of chemicals that predated fully-fledged cell-like entities seems to be farfetched to most scientists today. However, this is exactly the kind of scheme we propose for how Darwinian evolution could have occurred prior to template replication.
We cannot confirm previous claims that autocatalytic sets of organic polymer molecules could undergo evolution in any interesting sense by themselves. While we and others have previously imagined inhibition would result in selectability, we found that it produced multiple attractors in an autocatalytic set that cannot be selected for. Instead, we discovered that if general conditions are satisfied, the accumulation of adaptations in chemical reaction networks can occur. These conditions are the existence of rare reactions producing viable cores (analogous to a genotype), that sustains a molecular periphery (analogous to a phenotype).
We conclude that only when a chemical reaction network consists of many such viable cores, can it be evolvable. When many cores are enclosed in a compartment there is competition between cores within the same compartment, and when there are many compartments, there is between-compartment competition due to the phenotypic effects of cores and their periphery at the compartment level. Acquisition of cores by rare chemical events, and loss of cores at division, allows macromutation, limited heredity and selectability, thus explaining how a poor man's natural selection could have operated prior to genetic templates. This is the only demonstration to date of a mechanism by which pre-template accumulation of adaptation could occur.
This article was reviewed by William Martin and Eugene Koonin.
Keywords: origin of life, prebiotic evolution, chemical evolution, catalytic reaction networks, autocatalytic sets, replicators, protocells, metabolism-first theory of origin of life