Are molecular alphabets universal enabling factors for the evolution of complex life?

Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2013 Dec;43(6):445-64. doi: 10.1007/s11084-014-9354-9. Epub 2014 Feb 9.


Terrestrial biosystems depend on macromolecules, and this feature is often considered as a likely universal aspect of life. While opinions differ regarding the importance of small-molecule systems in abiogenesis, escalating biological functional demands are linked with increasing complexity in key molecules participating in biosystem operations, and many such requirements cannot be efficiently mediated by relatively small compounds. It has long been recognized that known life is associated with the evolution of two distinct molecular alphabets (nucleic acid and protein), specific sequence combinations of which serve as informational and functional polymers. In contrast, much less detailed focus has been directed towards the potential universal need for molecular alphabets in constituting complex chemically-based life, and the implications of such a requirement. To analyze this, emphasis here is placed on the generalizable replicative and functional characteristics of molecular alphabets and their concatenates. A primary replicative alphabet based on the simplest possible molecular complementarity can potentially enable evolutionary processes to occur, including the encoding of secondarily functional alphabets. Very large uniquely specified ('non-alphabetic') molecules cannot feasibly underlie systems capable of the replicative and evolutionary properties which characterize complex biosystems. Transitions in the molecular evolution of alphabets can be related to progressive bridging of barriers which enable higher levels of biosystem organization. It is thus highly probable that molecular alphabets are an obligatory requirement for complex chemically-based life anywhere in the universe. In turn, reference to molecular alphabets should be usefully applied in current definitions of life.

MeSH terms

  • Evolution, Molecular*
  • Nucleic Acids* / genetics
  • Nucleic Acids* / metabolism
  • Origin of Life*
  • Proteins* / genetics
  • Proteins* / metabolism


  • Nucleic Acids
  • Proteins