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Abstract

We hypothesize that life began not with the first self-reproducing molecule or metabolic network, but as a prebiotic ecology of co-evolving populations of macromolecular aggregates (composomes). Each composome species had a particular molecular composition resulting from molecular complementarity among environmentally available prebiotic compounds. Natural selection acted on composomal species that varied in properties and functions such as stability, catalysis, fission, fusion and selective accumulation of molecules from solution. Fission permitted molecular replication based on composition rather than linear structure, while fusion created composomal variability. Catalytic functions provided additional chemical novelty resulting eventually in autocatalytic and mutually catalytic networks within composomal species. Composomal autocatalysis and interdependence allowed the Darwinian co-evolution of content and control (metabolism). The existence of chemical interfaces within complex composomes created linear templates upon which self-reproducing molecules (such as RNA) could be synthesized, permitting the evolution of informational replication by molecular templating. Mathematical and experimental tests are proposed. BioEssays 28: 399–412, 2006. © 2006 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.