Previous Fora / 2011


Department of Plant Taxonomy and Ecology, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest

Eörs Szathmáry (born 1959) is a Hungarian theoretical evolutionary biologist at the Department of Plant Taxonomy and Ecology of Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest and at the Parmenides Foundation in Munich. He used to work at Collegium Budapest (Institute for Advanced Study) for 17 years until its collapse last summer and is currently a guest professor of the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich. His main interest is theoretical evolutionary biology and focuses on the common principles of the major steps in evolution, such as the origin of life, the emergence of cells, the origin of animal societies, and the appearance of human language. Together with his mentor, John Maynard Smith, he has published two important books which serve as the main references in the field (The Major Transitions in Evolution, Freeman, 1995, and The Origins of Life, Oxford University Press, 1999). Both books have been translated into other languages (so far, German, French, Japanese, and Hungarian). Professor Szathmáry's main achievements include: a mathematical description of some phases of early evolution; a scenario for the origin of the genetic code; analysis of epistasis in terms of metabolic control theory; demonstration of the selection consequences of parabolic growth; derivation of the optimal size of the genetic alphabet, a general framework to discuss the major transitions in evolution, and Darwinian approaches to neural dynamics.



11:00-13:00 18 NOVEMBER
THEMATIC SESSION II. Hungarian Academy of Sciences:“Networks”

Networks Made Life, Life Makes Networks

Life is both logically and historically rooted in chemistry. The earliest biological systems emerged somehow from chemical mayhem. In order to comprehend how this could have happened we must conceptually nail down what simplest life is from a chemical point of view. Tibor Gánti (1933-2009) proposed that elementary life is a chemical supersystem, composed of three different types of chemical network: metabolism, genetic replication and boundary system. The common feature of these networks is that all three are autocatalytic: they help the formation of themselves. The system is also autocatalytic as a whole and it is able to reproduce in 3D space. Today, such and more complicated systems are run by a special class of highly efficient catalysts: protein enzymes. Yet, they are certainly complicated products of early evolution. How could life exist before protein enzymes? A plausible answer is that RNAs (ribonucleic acids, similar to DNA) were then acting both as genetic material and enzymes. This simplifies the problem, but the snag is that we do not have a clear idea where RNA molecules could have come from. Could Gánti’s system have functioned before RNA, without macromolecular catalysis at all? We do not know the answer, but evolution by natural selection may have been possible even before the advent of nucleic acids: complex networks of different molecules may have had just enough evolutionary capacity to have led, ultimately, to the RNA world. Networks have produced life: now at each cell generation life produces new instantiations of networks.