Report on Anatolii Lazarenko’s submission to the Evolution 2.0 prize, for Natural Code
March 23rd 2021
This is a unique proposal in many ways, and it was a joy to read. The author defends necessity of the origin of organization in abiotic systems, caused by physical-chemistry (mainly thermodynamic) laws. A set of interesting self-organizing abiotic phenomena where these apply are pointed out in the Introduction, and a rough experimental design for prebiotic chemistry is presented. The author’s effort to keep the text accessible to a broad readership is very appreciated. We found the proposal very interesting and above average, particularly in the development of the experimental setup, which we could find more important info about in the author’s referenced website. Further remarks on this submission and a final decision are presented below.
Even though the text is presented for a broad readership, some sentences are still very hard to distill, e.g. “Generalizing this reasoning to other nonequilibrium systems (for example, of devices for monitoring Benard cells type), it can be assumed that a sufficient openness of the system after excess by the energy flow through it certain threshold "makes" it herself findng phase trajectory resulting in a new level of ordering”. We recommend a thorough English revision of the text in case the author wishes to publish this submission in any format (including our website) to make it clearer and even more accessible, however this is not mandatory. There are some delicate problems with the submission regarding scientific content and the Evo 2.0 prize guidelines. Early on in point 4., the author states that “Evolution [is] irreversible”. Although this has been a tenet in mainstream phylogeny, it is not the case at the level of traits, and this has been known from near the onset of Darwinism (H.J. Muller, 1939. Biological Reviews 14(3), 261-280) and more recently with several examples (1. Gabriel et al. 2005. The American Naturalist, 166:339-353; 2. Wiesch et al. 2010. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 54:2085-2095; 3. Powel et al. 2020. PNAS 117:6608-6615). It seems that the author may be confounding here evolution with anabolism, mutations, or growth, yet even that would be questionable. Still on this point, it is unclear what the author means with “when its complexity limit is reached”. These could quickly become philosophical discussions more than scientific ones, and we mention them just in the interest of clarity.
The concept of “God” is introduced in the initial parts of the submission, a concept difficult to place in scientific and technical discussions. The concept is made central in point 11, but appears in other locations. It is not our place to question the author’s metaphysical inclinations, and this would be very interesting to discuss in another platform, focused on philosophy or theology. However, the Evo 2.0 prize is a technical and scientific platform, and for its purposes, and in the pursuit of objective discussions, if the author wishes to submit a new version of this (partial) solution we ask that the version includes technical and scientific terminology only. The highlight made in point 12. to Ilya Prigogine and F. A. Hayek (to whom we would add Gregoire Nicolis, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, Stuart Kauffman and others) in their emphasis of the self-organizing nature of complex phenomena is very relevant to origin of life questions and commendable. Later in the submission we miss a concrete relation of the specific outcomes of the proposed experiment to these ideas. Which types of self-organizing constructs would the author expect to find in the “broth”?
In point 18., the author asks “why, for example, does replication not appear in freshwater, and encapsulation in the form of protocells – in saltwater?” The latter was recently disproved, with the experimental demonstration of the formation of vesicles in saltwater (Jordan et al. 2019. Nature Ecology & Evolution 3:1705–1714).
Point 20. is a good one, in highlighting the importance of holistic approaches and complexity. However, stating that it is rare work, and that reference  is the first example of it,inaccurate. Many authors in the origin of life field have pointed to the necessity of complexity in prebiotic experiments, so much so that terms exist for those approaches as “complex systems”, “systems chemistry” and “messy chemistry”. Partially reviewed in Nicholas et2017. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A. 375:20160347. Another example of this approach is Jia et al. 2019. PNAS 116:15830-15835. More examples of holistic and integrative approaches to the origin of life were reviewed in Preiner et al. 2020. Life 10(3), 20.
The experiment described is very interesting in being a “simulator” of a complex hydrothermal system of some sort. Some others are developing similar albeit probably simpler systems, e.g. Herschy et al. 2014. J Mol Evol 79:213–227; Mielke et al. 2010 Astrobiology 799-810. Itsaid that both CERN and NASA are developing, or in the early stages of projecting similar reactors. It is however very unclear what the specificities of the experiment proposed here will be – what exactly the composition of “air” will be, and of “ocean water”, what equipment will be required, the balance of costs of implementation and substrates with rewards of production, etc. Yet, most importantly, the expected outcome of the experiment and its value to our prize are very unclear. The author mentions a “broth”, but what value can we expect from that broth? How does it partially “generate, transmit and receive a simple code” as asked in the Evo 2.0 prize?
It certainly seems interesting to analyze phase transitions and broth compositions in such an experiment, but it is unknown how that can have value to our prize. Does the author believe the yield of this system in producing interesting biomolecules may be of value? With which certainty can the partial generation of a code be expected, and on what assumptions can that certainty be based? It seems to us that this a very high-risk proposal at this stage. The introduction of a “dryer” is interesting, but it must be tested beforehand to analyze its potential.
In sum, this seems like a very interesting setup for prebiotic chemistry, and with potential value in bioproduction industries. It is very unclear how it could solve the origin of the code. Preliminary experiments are required for us to access the partial value of this submission to the Evo 2.0 challenge. It needs to be clear to us what is the partial solution that the proposed “broths” can provide to the specific question of the origin of the code. Will the experiment merely provide building blocks for a protocell, and/or the code? If that, there are others who have produced the vast majority of said building blocks–even if in different experimental conditions. What is lacking is the self-organization of said molecules in a code. If the author proves the production of all building blocks for the code in the same setup, that is still not the code. However, if the author demonstrates increased productivity for particular molecules with commercial interest, or any other valuable outcome of the setup, that may be of interest to us. Some preliminary and concrete evidence needs to be presented.
EVO2.0 initial review team