Out of fuzzy chemistry: from prebiotic chemistry to metabolic networks
The origin of life on Earth was a chemical affair. So how did primitive biochemical systems originate from geochemical and cosmochemical processes on the young planet? Contemporary research into the origins of life subscribes to the Darwinian principle of material causes operating in an evolutionary context, as advocated by A. I. Oparin and J. B. S. Haldane in the 1920s. In its simplest form (e.g., a bacterial cell) extant biological complexity relies on the functional integration of metabolic networks and replicative genomes inside a lipid boundary. Different research programmes have explored the prebiotic plausibility of each of these autocatalytic subsystems and combinations thereof: self-maintained networks of small molecules, template chemistry, and self-reproductive vesicles. This tutorial review focuses on the debates surrounding the origin of metabolism and offers a brief overview of current studies on the evolution of metabolic networks. I suggest that a leitmotif in the origin and evolution of metabolism is the role played by catalysers' substrate ambiguity and multifunctionality.