The major transitions of life from a network perspective

Front Physiol. 2012 Apr 10;3:94. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2012.00094. eCollection 2012.


Many attempts have been made to understand the origin of life and biological complexity both at the experimental and theoretical levels but neither is fully explained. In an influential work, Maynard Smith and Szathmáry (1995) argued that the majority of the increase in complexity is not gradual, but it is associated with a few so-called major transitions along the way of the evolution of life. For each major transition, they identified specific mechanisms that could account for the change in complexity related to information transmission across generations. In this work, I propose that the sudden and unexpected improvement in the functionality of an organism that followed a major transition was enabled by a phase transition in the network structure associated with that function. The increase in complexity following a major transition is therefore directly linked to the emergence of a novel structure-function relation which altered the course of evolution. As a consequence, emergent phenomena arising from these network phase transitions can serve as a common organizing principle for understanding the major transitions. As specific examples, I analyze the emergence of life, the emergence of the genetic apparatus, the rise of the eukaryotic cells, the evolution of movement and mechanosensitivity, and the emergence of consciousness. Finally, I discuss the implications of network associated phase transitions to issues that bear relevance to the history, the immediate present and perhaps the future, of life.

Keywords: brain; emergence; eukaryotic cell; genetic apparatus; mechanotransduction; origin of life; phase transition.