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Living systems exhibit “goal-directed behavior” (GDB), meaning that they respond to internal and environmental conditions in a way that helps achieve intrinsic goals like persistence and growth. A prototypical example is provided by a chemotactic bacterium, which persists by sensing and moving towards food in its environment.

While GDB is closely associated with life, we will investigate the hypothesis that some nonliving and protobiological systems can exhibit minimal forms of GDB. We also hypothesize such “borderline” systems may be key to understanding the origin of life (OOL), where GDB facilitates essential functions like free energy harvesting and robustness. In fact, we argue that GDB may be as important in understanding the OOL as self-replication, metabolism, and genetic inheritance — processes which today attract much more attention in the field.

The lack of research on GDB is a major gap in the field of OOL. To address this gap, we will (1) develop a formal theory of GDB, which we will test and refine on several systems of major interest in OOL and protobiology: (2) in vitro active droplet and (3) in silico models of self-sustaining and self-assembling chemical networks. These research objectives will result in several publications, as well as an intense networking activity including an interdisciplinary workshop on formal theories of GDB.

Our project will be innovative in integrating theoretical, computational, and experimental methods to investigate GDB. It will shape the discussion of the role of GDB in abiogenesis, fundamentally impacting our understanding of the OOL. It will also shed light on what mechanisms support GDB in minimal laboratory physical systems (an active droplet) and protobiological chemical networks. We hope that the study of these experimental examples from a principled theoretical framework will become a benchmark system for research and pedagogy of GDB in nonliving systems.