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Biophysics - Physics

Lethal Mutants and Truncated Selection Together Solve a Paradox of the Origin of Life
Published: Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Author: David B. Saakian et al.

by David B. Saakian, Christof K. Biebricher, Chin-Kun Hu


Many attempts have been made to describe the origin of life, one of which is Eigen's cycle of autocatalytic reactions [Eigen M (1971) Naturwissenschaften 58, 465–523], in which primordial life molecules are replicated with limited accuracy through autocatalytic reactions. For successful evolution, the information carrier (either RNA or DNA or their precursor) must be transmitted to the next generation with a minimal number of misprints. In Eigen's theory, the maximum chain length that could be maintained is restricted to nucleotides, while for the most primitive genome the length is around . This is the famous error catastrophe paradox. How to solve this puzzle is an interesting and important problem in the theory of the origin of life.

Methodology/Principal Findings

We use methods of statistical physics to solve this paradox by carefully analyzing the implications of neutral and lethal mutants, and truncated selection (i.e., when fitness is zero after a certain Hamming distance from the master sequence) for the critical chain length. While neutral mutants play an important role in evolution, they do not provide a solution to the paradox. We have found that lethal mutants and truncated selection together can solve the error catastrophe paradox. There is a principal difference between prebiotic molecule self-replication and proto-cell self-replication stages in the origin of life.


We have applied methods of statistical physics to make an important breakthrough in the molecular theory of the origin of life. Our results will inspire further studies on the molecular theory of the origin of life and biological evolution.