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Open Access Correspondence

A New Replicator: A theoretical framework for analysing replication

István Zachar12* and Eörs Szathmáry123

Author Affiliations

1 MTA-ELTE Theoretical Biology and Ecology Research Group, Pázmány P sétány 1/C, H-1117 Budapest, Hungary

2 COLBUD Collegium Budapest, Szentháromság u 2, H-1014 Budapest, Hungary

3 The Parmenides Foundation, Kirchplatz 1, D-82049 Munich/Pullach, Germany

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BMC Biology 2010, 8:21  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-21

Published: 10 March 2010



Replicators are the crucial entities in evolution. The notion of a replicator, however, is far less exact than the weight of its importance. Without identifying and classifying multiplying entities exactly, their dynamics cannot be determined appropriately. Therefore, it is importance to decide the nature and characteristics of any multiplying entity, in a detailed and formal way.


Replication is basically an autocatalytic process which enables us to rest on the notions of formal chemistry. This statement has major implications. Simple autocatalytic cycle intermediates are considered as non-informational replicators. A consequence of which is that any autocatalytically multiplying entity is a replicator, be it simple or overly complex (even nests). A stricter definition refers to entities which can inherit acquired changes (informational replicators). Simple autocatalytic molecules (and nests) are excluded from this group. However, in turn, any entity possessing copiable information is to be named a replicator, even multicellular organisms. In order to deal with the situation, an abstract, formal framework is presented, which allows the proper identification of various types of replicators. This sheds light on the old problem of the units and levels of selection and evolution. A hierarchical classification for the partition of the replicator-continuum is provided where specific replicators are nested within more general ones. The classification should be able to be successfully applied to known replicators and also to future candidates.


This paper redefines the concept of the replicator from a bottom-up theoretical approach. The formal definition and the abstract models presented can distinguish between among all possible replicator types, based on their quantity of variable and heritable information. This allows for the exact identification of various replicator types and their underlying dynamics. The most important claim is that replication, in general, is basically autocatalysis, with a specific defined environment and selective force. A replicator is not valid unless its working environment, and the selective force to which it is subject, is specified.