Small-molecule autocatalytic networks are universal metabolic fossils.

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Philos Trans A Math Phys Eng Sci


washington; isb; Adenosine Triphosphate; Catalysis; Fossils; NAD; RNA; autocatalytic networks; cofactors; metabolism; origin of life; prokaryotes; small-molecules


Life and the genetic code are self-referential and so are autocatalytic networks made of simpler, small molecules. Several origins of life theories postulate autocatalytic chemical networks preceding the primordial genetic code, yet demonstration with biochemical systems is lacking. Here, small-molecule reflexively autocatalytic food-generated networks (RAFs) ranging in size from 3 to 619 reactions were found in all of 6683 prokaryotic metabolic networks searched. The average maximum RAF size is 275 reactions for a rich organic medium and 93 for a medium with a single organic cofactor, NAD. In the rich medium, all universally essential metabolites are produced with the exception of glycerol-1-p (archaeal lipid precursor), phenylalanine, histidine and arginine. The 300 most common reactions, present in at least 2732 RAFs, are mostly involved in amino acid biosynthesis and the metabolism of carbon, 2-oxocarboxylic acid and purines. ATP and NAD are central in generating network complexity, and because ATP is also one of the monomers of RNA, autocatalytic networks producing redox and energy currencies are a strong candidate niche of the origin of a primordial information-processing system. The wide distribution of small-molecule autocatalytic networks indicates that molecular reproduction may be much more prevalent in the Universe than hitherto predicted. This article is part of the theme issue 'Emergent phenomena in complex physical and socio-technical systems: from cells to societies'.


Institute for Systems Biology