• chemical evolution;
  • coupled reactions;
  • dissipative processes;
  • free-energy transduction;
  • photogenerated gradients;
  • proton pumps


Living systems rely on chains of energy transfer from an energy source to maintain their metabolism. This task requires functionally identified components and organizations. However, propagation of a sustained energy flux through a cascade of reaction cycles has never been reproduced at a steady state in a simple chemical system. By using energy patterning and a diffusing hub reactant, we achieved the transfer of energy through an abiotic protometabolism. Patterned illumination was applied to a liquid solution of a reversible photoacid. It resulted in the local onset of a proton pump, which subsequently drove an extended reaction–diffusion cycle that involved pH-sensitive reactants. Thus, light has been used for locally setting out of chemical equilibrium a reaction involving “blind” reactants. The spontaneous onset of an energy-transfer chain notably drives the local generation of singular dissipative chemical structures; continuous matter fluxes are dynamically maintained at boundaries between spatially and chemically segregated zones, in the absence of any membrane or predetermined material structure.