The physico-chemical processes occurring inside cells are under the computational control of genetic (DNA) and epigenetic (internal structural) programming. The origin and evolution of genetic information (nucleic acid sequences) is reasonably well understood, but scant attention has been paid to the origin and evolution of the molecular biological interpreters that give phenotypic meaning to the sequence information that is quite faithfully replicated during cellular reproduction. The near universality and age of the mapping from nucleotide triplets to amino acids embedded in the functionality of the protein synthetic machinery speaks to the early development of a system of coding which is still extant in every living organism. We take the origin of genetic coding as a paradigm of the emergence of computation in natural systems, focusing on the requirement that the molecular components of an interpreter be synthesized autocatalytically. Within this context, it is seen that interpreters of increasing complexity are generated by series of transitions through stepped dynamic instabilities (non-equilibrium phase transitions). The early phylogeny of the amino acyl-tRNA synthetase enzymes is discussed in such terms, leading to the conclusion that the observed optimality of the genetic code is a natural outcome of the processes of self-organization that produced it.
One contribution of 21 to a theme issue ‘DNA as information’.
- Accepted July 17, 2015.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.