The Dynamics of the RNA World: Insights and Challenges

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2015 Apr;1341:75-95. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12700. Epub 2015 Mar 3.


The RNA world hypothesis of the origin of life, in which RNA emerged as both enzyme and information carrier, is receiving solid experimental support. The prebiotic synthesis of biomolecules, the catalytic aid offered by mineral surfaces, and the vast enzymatic repertoire of ribozymes are only pieces of the origin of life puzzle; the full picture can only emerge if the pieces fit together by either following from one another or coexisting with each other. Here, we review the theory of the origin, maintenance, and enhancement of the RNA world as an evolving population of dynamical systems. The dynamical view of the origin of life allows us to pinpoint the missing and the not fitting pieces: (1) How can the first self-replicating ribozyme emerge in the absence of template-directed information replication? (2) How can nucleotide replicators avoid competitive exclusion despite utilizing the very same resources (nucleobases)? (3) How can the information catastrophe be avoided? (4) How can enough genes integrate into a cohesive system in order to transition to a cellular stage? (5) How can the way information is stored and metabolic complexity coevolve to pave to road leading out of the RNA world to the present protein-DNA world?

Keywords: RNA world; error threshold; hypercycle; metabolism; origin of life; ribozyme.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Biocatalysis
  • Chromosomes / genetics
  • Chromosomes / metabolism
  • Evolution, Molecular
  • Models, Genetic
  • Nucleotides / genetics*
  • Nucleotides / metabolism
  • Origin of Life*
  • RNA Replicase / genetics*
  • RNA Replicase / metabolism
  • RNA, Catalytic / genetics*
  • RNA, Catalytic / metabolism
  • Templates, Genetic


  • Nucleotides
  • RNA, Catalytic
  • RNA Replicase