The central dogma of molecular biology rests on two kinds of asymmetry between genomes and enzymes: informatic asymmetry, where information flows from genomes to enzymes but not from enzymes to genomes; and catalytic asymmetry, where enzymes provide chemical catalysis but genomes do not. How did these asymmetries originate? Here, we show that these asymmetries can spontaneously arise from conflict between selection at the molecular level and selection at the cellular level. We developed a model consisting of a population of protocells, each containing a population of replicating catalytic molecules. The molecules are assumed to face a trade-off between serving as catalysts and serving as templates. This trade-off causes conflicting multilevel selection: serving as catalysts is favoured by selection between protocells, whereas serving as templates is favoured by selection between molecules within protocells. This conflict induces informatic and catalytic symmetry breaking, whereby the molecules differentiate into genomes and enzymes, establishing the central dogma. We show mathematically that the symmetry breaking is caused by a positive feedback between Fisher's reproductive values and the relative impact of selection at different levels. This feedback induces a division of labour between genomes and enzymes, provided variation at the molecular level is sufficiently large relative to variation at the cellular level, a condition that is expected to hinder the evolution of altruism. Taken together, our results suggest that the central dogma is a logical consequence of conflicting multilevel selection.
Keywords: Price equation; RNA world hypothesis; origin of genetic information; prebiotic evolution; reproductive division of labour.