A summary article detailing work on theoretical evolutionary biology has been published in the world’s most prestigious chemistry journal, Nature Review Chemistry. One of biology’s – and humankind’s – most exciting questions, and one that has implications beyond natural science, is where life came from, and how – in the words of Hungarian biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi – “the living state of matter” came about. It is hard to reconstruct events that took place two and a half billion years ago, as there are no ‘fossils’, no remaining traces of the rudimentary living organisms of the time.
The most important waypoint in the search for the path from life to inanimate matter is evolutionary theory, though both biological and also complex chemical systems have a central role to play: those structures remain that are better adapted to the given environment and are able to replicate themselves at a faster rate. RNA molecules – in all likehood – also played a key role in the dawn of life. These DNA-like molecules, which still play an important role in today’s organisms, are able to replicate, and therefore multiply, so Darwinian evolution is already in effect in the population of RNA molecules. And in the course of the increase in complexity driven by evolution, highly sophisticated chemical systems almost necessarily appear that can already be referred to as living organisms.
This is how chemical evolution changed into biological evolution, and how life appeared on Earth.
As a result, given the origin of the process, any living organism, ourselves included, is nothing more than a complex chemical self-reproducing automaton.
There were many obstacles to the increase in chemical complexity, however: the rudimentary biochemical mechanism, for example, did not replicate accurately, resulting in many erroneous, unsuitable reproductions. In addition, even rudimentary chemical systems offered the possibility for cheating/selfishness to the actors, but there was also an opportunity for cooperation and competition at the molecular level.
The scientific article published in the journal Nature Review Chemistry presents some results of the last three decades of the New Europe School for Theoretical Biology, named after Eörs Szathmáry, director general of the ELKH Ecological Research Center, and supplemented by the results of experiments by foreign research groups. One notable feature of the article – whose Hungarian co-authors are Tamás Czárán, Ádám Kun and András Szilágyi – is that theory and experiment are presented together, so the development of the circle of ideas can be traced, as well as how the development of biochemical methods previously developed theoretical-computer models.
The article, published in English, is available here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41570-020-0196-x