Spontaneous network formation among cooperative RNA replicators

Nature. 2012 Nov 1;491(7422):72-7. doi: 10.1038/nature11549. Epub 2012 Oct 17.


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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Azoarcus / enzymology
  • Azoarcus / genetics
  • Base Pairing
  • Base Sequence
  • Biocatalysis*
  • Evolution, Chemical*
  • Introns / genetics
  • Models, Biological*
  • Models, Genetic
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Origin of Life*
  • RNA, Catalytic / biosynthesis*
  • RNA, Catalytic / chemistry
  • RNA, Catalytic / genetics
  • RNA, Catalytic / metabolism*
  • Recombinases / biosynthesis
  • Recombinases / chemistry
  • Recombinases / genetics
  • Recombinases / metabolism


  • RNA, Catalytic
  • Recombinases