All known forms of life appear to react in consequential ways to the environment –they show agency– and do so through the action of feedback loops. We propose to focus on important, unanswered questions on the origins of biological agency from abiotic precursors: What basic relationships make agency possible? How was agency expressed prior to the emergence of the first living cell?
Here we will integrate experiments and computational network analyses to track the emergence of agency in abiotic chemical networks powered by X-ray or gamma ray photons. The resulting networks will be analyzed to detect autocatalysis, the most basic form of self-organization and a prerequisite for agential behaviors. This project is needed because, although autocatalytic sets have long been theorized to be critical to life’s origins, there are almost no examples of autocatalysis under plausible, natural conditions.
The project will produce a list of new candidate autocatalytic sets that can guide future research into the origins of self-organizing chemical agents. Demonstrating that non-living systems can be driven to exhibit agential attributes under geochemically plausible conditions would fundamentally impact our understanding of how life can come into existence.