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Open Access Highly Accessed Open Badges Research article

Prebiotic replicase evolution in a surface-bound metabolic system: parasites as a source of adaptive evolution

Balázs Könnyű, Tamás Czárán12 and Eörs Szathmáry1234*

Author Affiliations

1 Institute of Biology, Eötvös University, Pázmány P. sétány 1/c, H-1117 Budapest, Hungary

2 Theoretical Biology and Ecology Research Group, Eötvös University, Pázmány P. sétány 1/c, H-1117 Budapest, Hungary

3 Collegium Budapest, Institute for Advanced Study, Szentháromság u. 2, H-1014 Budapest, Hungary

4 Parmenides Centre for the Study of Thinking, 14a Kardinal Faulhauber Strasse, D-80333 Munich, Germany

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2008, 8:267  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-8-267

Published: 30 September 2008



The remarkable potential of recent forms of life for reliably passing on genetic information through many generations now depends on the coordinated action of thousands of specialized biochemical "machines" (enzymes) that were obviously absent in prebiotic times. Thus the question how a complicated system like the living cell could have assembled on Earth seems puzzling. In seeking for a scientific explanation one has to search for step-by-step evolutionary changes from prebiotic chemistry to the emergence of the first proto-cell.


We try to sketch a plausible scenario for the first steps of prebiotic evolution by exploring the ecological feasibility of a mineral surface-bound replicator system that facilitates a primitive metabolism. Metabolism is a hypothetical network of simple chemical reactions producing monomers for the template-copying of RNA-like replicators, which in turn catalyse metabolic reactions. Using stochastic cellular automata (SCA) simulations we show that the surface-bound metabolic replicator system is viable despite internal competition among the genes and that it also maintains a set of mild "parasitic" sequences which occasionally evolve functions such as that of a replicase.


Replicase activity is shown to increase even at the expense of slowing down the replication of the evolving ribozyme itself, due to indirect mutualistic benefits in a diffuse form of group selection among neighbouring replicators. We suggest possible paths for further evolutionary changes in the metabolic replicator system leading to increased metabolic efficiency, improved replicase functionality, and membrane production.