The chemoton model of cells posits three subsystems: metabolism, compartmentalization, and information. A specific model for the prebiological evolution of a reproducing system with rudimentary versions of these three interdependent subsystems is presented. This is based on the initial emergence and reproduction of autocatalytic networks in hydrothermal microcompartments containing iron sulfide. The driving force for life was catalysis of the dissipation of the intrinsic redox gradient of the planet. The codependence of life on iron and phosphate provides chemical constraints on the ordering of prebiological evolution. The initial protometabolism was based on positive feedback loops associated with in situ carbon fixation in which the initial protometabolites modified the catalytic capacity and mobility of metal-based catalysts, especially iron-sulfur centers. A number of selection mechanisms, including catalytic efficiency and specificity, hydrolytic stability, and selective solubilization, are proposed as key determinants for autocatalytic reproduction exploited in protometabolic evolution. This evolutionary process led from autocatalytic networks within preexisting compartments to discrete, reproducing, mobile vesicular protocells with the capacity to use soluble sugar phosphates and hence the opportunity to develop nucleic acids. Fidelity of information transfer in the reproduction of these increasingly complex autocatalytic networks is a key selection pressure in prebiological evolution that eventually leads to the selection of nucleic acids as a digital information subsystem and hence the emergence of fully functional chemotons capable of Darwinian evolution.

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Author notes


Department of Chemistry, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, PB4800, New Zealand. E-mail: andy.pratt@canterbury.ac.nz