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A Sourcebook for the Worldwide Discovery of a Creative Organic Universe
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III. An Organic, Conducive, Habitable MultiUniVerse

2. An Autocatalytic Ecosmos

This new section (January 2018) is added to gather and report into the later 2010s an increasing notice of how a natural universe to human evolutionary genesis ought to be appreciated in some way as containing deep, intrinsic propensities for life’s self initiation, emergent organization, and sentient procreation. As popularly known, a catalyst is a chemical agent which can effect a reaction without being changed in the process. An autocatalytic term has become a general identifier for this procedure, and has gained wide usage because something like this is actually seems to be going on. A premier, pioneer theorist since the 1970s is Stuart Kauffman (search) which he has articulated in many books and collegial papers to this day. Lately the concept is being advanced by biomathematicians such as Wim Hordijk and Michael Steel, along with Liane Gabora, Nathaniel Virgo, Guenther Witzany, Sara Walker, Leroy Cronin, Addy Pross, and other advocates herein. We will collect in this dedicated subsection entries about a self-making natural genesis as it reaches our worldwide realization.

ABSCICON Astrobiology Science Conference 2015: Habitability, Habitable Worlds, and Life. www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/abscicon2015. Reviewed much more in Astrobiology, a premier biannual conference for this cosmic quest. We add an apropos Abstract for this new section.

Recent years have witnessed dramatic advances in our understanding of the early steps in the transition from a prebiotic world to a world transformed by a biotic component. These early steps are presumed to include the evolution of collectively autocatalytic networks of molecules, as well as the evolution of protocells that define the boundary between living and non-living matter. Since the earliest cellular life, innovations caused by gene duplication and divergence, novel gene fusions/fission, and transfer of genes between phylogenetically distinct groups have led to an explosive diversification of the metabolic and regulatory networks within cells, enabling colonization of new environmental niches as well as new mechanisms for cooperative interactions between cells. The hierarchy of life — genes within genomes, organelles within cells, cells within organisms, and organisms within societies — is not a starting condition of the evolutionary process, but an outcome of a series of major transitions in which units of low complexity combine to form units of high complexity. (The Origin and Subsequent Evolution of Life Plenary Session)

Systems Chemistry. www.esf.org/conferences/08267. An October 2008 meeting held at Maratea, Italy by the European Science Foundation as part of its Action CM0703: Systems Chemistry initiative. This website will direct to the extensive program, which includes, e.g., George Cody: Geomimetic Biochemistry; Steven Benner: Systems Chemistry that Creates “Life;” Donna Blackmond: Chemical and Physical Models for the Evolution of Biological Homochirality; Peter Schuster: The Advent of Information and combinatorial Complexity; and Eors Szathmary: The Origin of the Genetic Code. Immediately followed by Chembiogenesis 2008 (Google) in the same venue, these efforts achieves a further rooting of living dynamics into conducive molecular realms. But the deeper ground of the physical cosmos remains absent and barren, a “systems physics” turn has yet to be taken.

Systems chemistry is the joint effort of prebiotic and supramolecular chemistry assisted by computer science from theoretical chemistry, biology, and complex systems research to tackle dynamic supersystem integration including at least one autocatalytic subsystem. It is the bottom-up pendant of systems biology towards synthetic biology. The integration approach will necessarily link to the question of asymmetric autocatalysis and chiral symmetry breaking, while the key challenge is to find the roots of Darwinian evolvability in chemical systems.

Attwater, James and Philipp Holliger. Origins of Life: The Cooperative Gene. Nature. 491/48, 2012. A news note on “Spontaneous Network Formation among Cooperative RNA Replicators” by Nilesh Valdya, et al in the same issue, wherein Portland State, Harvard, and Stanford University researchers report that active nets of RNA molecules actually appear to mutually help assemble one another. This finding seems to suggest that “cooperation may be as old as life itself.” Niles Lehman, a Portland State coauthor is also engaged with his group (search) with studies of Abiogenesis, the rooting of life in its fertile chemical ground.

The origin of life on Earth remains one of the great unsolved mysteries. A new study suggests that cooperation among molecules could have contributed to the transition from inanimate chemistry to biology. (Attwater, 48) Cooperation operates at all scales of life, from whole organisms, such as wolves hunting in packs, to individual cells acting in a coordinated fashion during development or organ function. (48)

The origins of life on Earth required the establishment of self-replicating chemical systems capable of maintaining and evolving biological information. In an RNA world, single self-replicating RNAs would have faced the extreme challenge of possessing a mutation rate low enough both to sustain their own information and to compete successfully against molecular parasites with limited evolvability. Thus theoretical analyses suggest that networks of interacting molecules were more likely to develop and sustain life-like behaviour. Here we show that mixtures of RNA fragments that self-assemble into self-replicating ribozymes spontaneously form cooperative catalytic cycles and networks. We find that a specific three-membered network has highly cooperative growth dynamics. When such cooperative networks are competed directly against selfish autocatalytic cycles, the former grow faster, indicating an intrinsic ability of RNA populations to evolve greater complexity through cooperation. We can observe the evolvability of networks through in vitro selection. Our experiments highlight the advantages of cooperative behaviour even at the molecular stages of nascent life. (Vaidya, Abstract, 72)

Bissette, Andrew and Stephen Fletcher. Mechanisms of Autocatalysis. Angewandte Chemie International Edition. 52/12800, 2013. Oxford University chemists note the propensity of natural phenomena to bootstrap itself out of available materials into emergent organic complexities, especially at life’s origin. By these lights, an “autocatalytic cosmos” comes to mind. Search autocatalysis here for more usages, and Bissette in Mind over Matter for a case of human intention taking on a role of cosmic catalysts.

Self-replication is a fundamental concept. The idea of an entity that can repeatedly create more of itself has captured the imagination of many thinkers from von Neumann to Vonnegut. Beyond the sciences and science fiction, autocatalysis has found currency in economics and language theory. Autocatalysis is central to the propagation of life and intrinsic to many other biological processes. This includes the modern conception of evolution, which has radically altered humanity’s image of itself. Organisms can be thought of as imperfect self-replicators which produce closely-related species, allowing for selection and evolution. Hence, any consideration of self-replication raises one of the most profound questions of all: what is life? Minimal self-replicating systems have been studied with the aim of understanding the principles underlying living systems, allowing us to refine our concepts of biological fitness and chemical stability, self-organization and emergence, and ultimately to discover how chemistry may become biology. (Abstract)

Braakman, Rogier and Eric Smith. The Compositional and Evolutionary Logic of Metabolism. Physical Biology. 10/1, 2013. Reviewed more in Systems Evolution, SFI scientists, notable vitas appended, entertain theoretical ways to join, root, join, and source, life’s genomic and biological scales within the geological substrates from which they naturally arose. Metabolic networks, broadly conceived, are seen to have a prominent generative, homeostasis-like role in this regard. Within the major evolutionary transitions, their universal, independent dynamics then animate and recur across many levels.

Brown, Mark, et al. Energy Hierarchy and Transformity in the Universe. Ecological Modelling. 178/1-2, 2004. An article in a special issue to review and expand on the work of the late systems ecologist Howard Odum. Through his legacy and perspective, stratified autocatalytic processes are found to characterize both environmental and cosmic scales.

Coveney, Peter, et al. Theory, Modelling and Simulation in Origin of Life Studies. Chemican Society Reviews. 41/5430, 2012. Reviewed much more in Origin of Life, in a special section on “Prebiotic Chemistry,” Coveney, and Jacob Swadling, University College London computational chemists, Jonathan Wattis, University of Nottingham mathematician, and Christopher Greenwell, Durham University earth scientist review past and further orientations for this broad, significant field.

Origins of life studies represent an exciting and highly multidisciplinary research field. In this review we focus on the contributions made by theory, modelling and simulation to addressing fundamental issues in the domain and the advances these approaches have helped to make in the field. Theoretical approaches will continue to make a major impact at the “systems chemistry” level based on the analysis of the remarkable properties of nonlinear catalytic chemical reaction networks, which arise due to the auto-catalytic and cross-catalytic nature of so many of the putative processes associated with self-replication and self-reproduction. In this way, we describe inter alia nonlinear kinetic models of RNA replication within a primordial Darwinian soup, the origins of homochirality and homochiral polymerization. We then discuss state-of-the-art computationally-based molecular modelling techniques that are currently being deployed to investigate various scenarios relevant to the origins of life. (Abstract)

Cronin, Leroy and Sara Imari Walker. Beyond Prebiotic Chemistry. Science. 352/1174, 2016. A University of Glasgow chemist and Arizona State University astrophysicist contribute to the nascent revolution in origin of life studies, akin to other fields such as genomics, that after a long period of identifying elemental pieces like rudimentary RNA, a presence of equally real dynamic networks which serve to organize and vitalize need be factored in. This advance to join components and connections, along with their informational content, augurs for finding “universal laws of life.” Search for the Philippe Nghe, et al paper Prebiotic Network Evolution for another example.

How can matter transition from the nonliving to the living state? The answer is essential for understanding the origin of life on Earth and for identifying promising targets in the search for life on other planets. Most studies have focused on the likely chemistry of RNA (1), protein (2), lipid, or metabolic “worlds” (3), and autocatalytic sets (4), including attempts to make life in the lab. But these efforts may be too narrowly focused on the biochemistry of life as we know it today. A radical rethink is necessary, one that explores not just plausible chemical scenarios but also new physical processes and driving forces. Such investigations could lead to a physical understanding not only of the origin of life but also of life itself, as well as to new tools for designing artificial biology. (Summary)

Dunn, Ian. Searching for Molecular Solutions: Empirical Discovery and Its Future. New York: Wiley, 2010. The Australian geneticist author is now Director of Research at CytoCure in Boston “where the focus is improving the recognition of melanoma cells by the immune system.” Such medical progress can be aptly achieved by a reinterpretation of genomes in terms of literary and linguistic metaphors, a grand parallel lately verified. The well-organized, accessible work has various sections entitled How to be a Librarian, Primordial Alphabet Soup, and On Molecular Translations, hence a textual nature we are invited to read. In such perspective, life’s evolution is also to be recast by way the “new sciences of complexity and self-organizing systems.”

But a simpler view is that spontaneous order increases the size and versatility of the toolbox upon which natural selection can act, where the tools are self-organized autocatalytic molecular sets acting as supramolecular building blocks. (42-43) Thus, the arrangement of complex genetic circuits, up to the level of entire genomes, may result in part from the self-organizational properties of complex systems. (43)

The analogy of protein sequences with linguistics has indeed been well noted and has applications in the analysis of protein organization using similar approaches as with general computational linguistic. (353) In any event, emphasizing the centrality of alphabets is simply another way of framing the common notion of “life as information,” where information equates with semantics. (355) In the language analogy, structurally distinct proteins with analogous functions would constitute synonymous words or phrases. The same function in one “biological language” (such as folded protein sequences) is often “translatable” into another (such as folded RNA sequences). (357)

Egel, Richard. Life’s Order, Complexity, Organization, and Its Thermodynamic-Holistic Imperatives. Life. Online November, 2012. Reviewed also in Organic Cosmos, the emeritus University of Copenhagen Biocenter geneticist achieves an insightful advocacy of the imminent (re)connection of biology with physics, of evolved organic entities with vital material substrates. An innovative context recalls the prescient insights of Jeffery Wicken, (1942-2002) as in his main work Evolution, Thermodynamics, and Information, (Oxford, 1987), who taught at Penn State for many years and is seen as laying out theoretical pathways to such a resolution. A 1995 companion paper by philosopher Iris Fry (search) is also availed to contrast these options – “continuity thesis or natural-law camp” vs. “happy accident or almost miracle.” From 2012, Egel’s affirms that the gulf between life and land has been bridged, - rather than improbable chance, living beings are now known to spontaneously arise and complexify by way of dynamical, self-organizing autocatalytic, integrative forces. The project goes on, which this site seeks to document, to better name, give credence to, and empower this cosmic Copernican revolution from mechanics to vitality, dark to light ages, from precarious nothing to an ordained teleological gestation.

Farnsworth, Keith, et al. Unifying Concepts of Biological Function from Molecules to Ecosystems. Oikos. 126/10, 2017. Farnsworth and Tancredi Caruso, Queen’s University, Belfast, with Larissa Albantakis, University of Wisconsin contribute to a vital, overdue synthesis across ecological theories by way of clarifying definitions, and a range of complexity principles such as autocatalysis and emergent scales. With common, simplified terms in place, the presence of universal formative principles across nature’s tangled bank can at last be realized. See also A Comprehensive Framework for the Study of Species Co-Occurrences, Nestedness and Turnover by Werner Ulrich, et al in the November issue.

The concept of function arises at all levels of biological study and is often loosely and variously defined, especially within ecology. This has led to ambiguity, obscuring the common structure that unites levels of biological organisation, from molecules to ecosystems. Here we build on already successful ideas from molecular biology and complexity theory to create a precise definition of biological function which spans levels of biological organisation and can be quantified in the unifying currency of biomass, enabling comparisons of functional effectiveness (irrespective of the specific function) across the field of ecology. We give precise definitions of ecological and ecosystem function that bring clarity and precision to studies of biodiversity–ecosystem function relationships and questions of ecological redundancy. This type of network structure is that of an autocatalytic set of functional relationships, which also appears at biochemical, cellular and organism levels of organisation, creating a nested hierarchy. This enables a common and unifying concept of function to apply from molecular interaction networks up to the global ecosystem. (Abstract)

Fry, Iris. The Role of Natural Selection in the Origin of Life. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 41/1, 2011. Reviewed more in Origin of Life, as the quote avers, an iconic sorting has arisen between an emphasis on discrete nucleotide molecules – ‘gene-first’, or in favor of primal autocatalytic, self-organizational processes – ‘metabolism first.’ A necessity for the gene group is the formation of membrane enclosed compartments or proto-cells to house such RNA informants.

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