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Evolution experiments


The hypercycle is a theoretical basis of life
Manfred Eigen Scientist
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In nature there's not only reproduction what we find, we have to build enzymes, and the enzymes have to be optimal catalysts. And the catalysis is not a reproduction reaction, you have all sorts of reactions, so you needed then a class of molecule which you can adapt to any reaction you need in your complicate system. And now comes the difficulty. What you have to keep is the information. And for that you have your reproduction below the error threshold. But what you want to test for is functional efficiency, and that you can only test with a given enzyme. So what you have to keep is the nucleic acid's information strength, but what you evaluate is the protein molecule, which is translated from the nucleic acid molecule. So I call that the genotype/phenotype dichotomy. In other words the phenotype, which is to be evaluated and found to be good or not good... not well adapted, has to tell its genotype, 'I'm a good one, keep my information and destroy the others'.

And that means you need an additional feedback loop. Before, we need one loop, replication, the plus strength makes a minus strength, the minus makes... this is a cycle really, reproduction cycle, yes, as you have it in quasispecies. Now you can also translate your information and the translation product has to feed back, has to tell 'I'm a good one', or 'I'm a bad one'. And that we called hypercycle.

[Q] So the hypercycle is, so to speak, a theoretical basis of life...


[Q] On a very low, low, low level.

It serves two purposes. First of all it allows you to make... build up a network of genes, because the genes can't become longer than allowed by the error threshold, and here you can put together several through this loop, and secondly it allows you to overcome the genotype/phenotype dichotomy. And this was first a purely theoretical concept, but later on we found it experimentally.

[Q] Can you tell, what was the crucial experiment to verify this?

Well, I will tell that in more detail, but it was the infection of a cell by a virus particle... shows exactly this process and it's exactly of hypercyclic nature.

Nobel Prize winning German biophysical chemist, Manfred Eigen (1927-2019), was best known for his work on fast chemical reactions and his development of ways to accurately measure these reactions down to the nearest billionth of a second. He published over 100 papers with topics ranging from hydrogen bridges of nucleic acids to the storage of information in the central nervous system.

Listeners: Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitch

Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch is the eldest daughter of the Austrian physicist Klaus Osatitsch, an internationally renowned expert in gas dynamics, and his wife Hedwig Oswatitsch-Klabinus. She was born in the German university town of Göttingen where her father worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Aerodynamics under Ludwig Prandtl. After World War II she was educated in Stockholm, Sweden, where her father was then a research scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institute of Technology.

In 1961 Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch enrolled in Chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna where she received her PhD in 1969 with a dissertation on "Fast complex reactions of alkali ions with biological membrane carriers". The experimental work for her thesis was carried out at the Max Planck Institute for Physical Chemistry in Göttingen under Manfred Eigen.

From 1971 to the present Ruthild Winkler-Oswatitsch has been working as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen in the Department of Chemical Kinetics which is headed by Manfred Eigen. Her interest was first focused on an application of relaxation techniques to the study of fast biological reactions. Thereafter, she engaged in theoretical studies on molecular evolution and developed game models for representing the underlying chemical proceses. Together with Manfred Eigen she wrote the widely noted book, "Laws of the Game" (Alfred A. Knopf Inc. 1981 and Princeton University Press, 1993). Her more recent studies were concerned with comparative sequence analysis of nucleic acids in order to find out the age of the genetic code and the time course of the early evolution of life. For the last decade she has been successfully establishing industrial applications in the field of evolutionary biotechnology.

Tags: Reproduction, error threshold, enzymes, catalysis, protein molecule, nucleic acid molecule, genotype/phenotype dichotomy, hypercycle, reproduction cycle, quasispecies, genes, virus particle

Duration: 3 minutes, 4 seconds

Date story recorded: July 1997

Date story went live: 24 January 2008