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The origin of life is a spatially localized stochastic transition

Meng Wu and Paul G Higgs*

Author Affiliations

Origins Institute and Department of Physics and Astronomy, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, L8S 4M1, Canada

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Biology Direct 2012, 7:42  doi:10.1186/1745-6150-7-42

Published: 24 November 2012



Life depends on biopolymer sequences as catalysts and as genetic material. A key step in the Origin of Life is the emergence of an autocatalytic system of biopolymers. Here we study computational models that address the way a living autocatalytic system could have emerged from a non-living chemical system, as envisaged in the RNA World hypothesis.


We consider (i) a chemical reaction system describing RNA polymerization, and (ii) a simple model of catalytic replicators that we call the Two’s Company model. Both systems have two stable states: a non-living state, characterized by a slow spontaneous rate of RNA synthesis, and a living state, characterized by rapid autocatalytic RNA synthesis. The origin of life is a transition between these two stable states. The transition is driven by stochastic concentration fluctuations involving relatively small numbers of molecules in a localized region of space. These models are simulated on a two-dimensional lattice in which reactions occur locally on single sites and diffusion occurs by hopping of molecules to neighbouring sites.


If diffusion is very rapid, the system is well-mixed. The transition to life becomes increasingly difficult as the lattice size is increased because the concentration fluctuations that drive the transition become relatively smaller when larger numbers of molecules are involved. In contrast, when diffusion occurs at a finite rate, concentration fluctuations are local. The transition to life occurs in one local region and then spreads across the rest of the surface. The transition becomes easier with larger lattice sizes because there are more independent regions in which it could occur. The key observations that apply to our models and to the real world are that the origin of life is a rare stochastic event that is localized in one region of space due to the limited rate of diffusion of the molecules involved and that the subsequent spread across the surface is deterministic. It is likely that the time required for the deterministic spread is much shorter than the waiting time for the origin, in which case life evolves only once on a planet, and then rapidly occupies the whole surface.


Reviewed by Omer Markovitch (nominated by Doron Lancet), Claus Wilke, and Nobuto Takeuchi (nominated by Eugene Koonin).