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Steel Mike | Fellow Visitor
2016-06-26 - 2016-06-28 | Research area: Other
Collaboration on Autocatalytic Sets and the Origin of Life

In an ongoing collaboration with Dr. Wim Hordijk (KLI Senior Fellow) we have studied autocatalytic sets in the context of the origin of life. Autocatalytic sets are self-sustaining chemical reaction networks in which all reactions are catalyzed by at least one of the molecules in the network, and where these molecules can be built up from a basic food source by using only reactions from the network itself.

In previous work we have investigated the properties of autocatalytic sets in detail using a simple polymer model of chemical reaction systems. For example, we showed that autocatalytic sets are highly likely to exist in random instances of this model, also for chemically very realistic levels of catalysis, and that they tend to have a hierachical structure consisting of smaller and smaller autocatalytic subsets. Thus, autocatalytic sets appear to possess the necessary properties for their spontaneous emergence and further evolution from prebiotic chemistry.

We have also applied our formal autocatalytic sets framework to real chemical and biological reaction networks, such as a system of mutually catalytic RNA molecules, and the metabolic network of E. coli. This has led to additional insights into these systems that would be difficult to obtain from chemical experiments alone.

We are currently looking into more details of the required levels of catalysis for autocatalytic sets to exist under various model assumptions, and how we can also deal with inhibition (next to catalysis). To facilitate this work, and to write up our most recent results in an article to be submitted to a scientific journal, I propose a KLI visiting fellowship at the end of June to collaborate directly with my colleague Wim Hordijk.