Evolution before Genes - Two Review Papers

Evolution before Genes - Two Review Papers

The RNA world hypothesis: the worst theory of the early evolution of life (except for all the others)

The problems associated with the RNA world hypothesis are well known. In the following I discuss some of these difficulties, some of the alternative hypotheses that have been proposed, and some of the problems with these alternative models. From a biosynthetic as well as, arguably, evolutionary perspective, DNA is a modified RNA, and so the chicken-and-egg dilemma of which came first? boils down to a choice between RNA and protein. This is not just a question of cause and effect, but also one of statistical likelihood, as the chance of two such different types of macromolecule arising simultaneously would appear unlikely. The RNA world hypothesis is an example of a top down (or should it be present back?) approach to early evolution: how can we simplify modern biological systems to give a plausible evolutionary pathway that preserves continuity of function? The discovery that RNA possesses catalytic ability provides a potential solution: a single macromolecule could have originally carried out both replication and catalysis. RNA, which constitutes the genome of RNA viruses, and catalyzes peptide synthesis on the ribosome, could have been both the chicken and the egg! However, the following objections have been raised to the RNA world hypothesis: (i) RNA is too complex a molecule to have arisen prebiotically; (ii) RNA is inherently unstable; (iii) catalysis is a relatively rare property of long RNA sequences only; and (iv) the catalytic repertoire of RNA is too limited. I will offer some possible responses to these objections in the light of work by our and other labs. Finally, I will critically discuss an alternative theory to the RNA world hypothesis known as proteins first, which holds that proteins either preceded RNA in evolution, or, at the very least, that proteins and RNA coevolved. I will argue that, while theoretically possible, such a hypothesis is probably unprovable, and that the RNA world hypothesis, although far from perfect or complete, is the best we currently have to help understand the backstory to contemporary biology.

In the same context, here is another interesting article -

Evolution before genes


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.

Written by M. //