Extended Molecular Evolutionary Biology: Artificial Life Bridging the Gap Between Chemistry and Biology

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Molecular evolution provides an ample field for the extension of Nature's principles towards novel applications. Several examples are discussed here, among them are evolution in the test tube, nucleotide chemistry with new base pairs and new backbones, enzyme-free replication of polynucleotides and template chemistry aiming at replicating structures that have nothing in common with the molecules from nature. Molecular evolution in the test tube provides a uniquely simple system for the study of evolutionary phenomena: genotype and phenotype are two features of one and the same RNA molecule. Then fitness landscapes are nothing more than combined mappings from sequences to structures and from structures to functions, the latter being expressed in terms of rate constants. RNA landscapes are presented as examples for which an access to phenomena in reality by mathematical analysis and computer simulations is feasible. New questions concerning stability of structures in evolution can be raised and quantitative answers are given. Evolutionary biotechnology is a spin-off from molecular evolution. Darwin's principle of variation and selection is applied to design novel biopolymers with predetermined functions. Different approaches to achieve this goal are discussed and a survey of the current state of the art is given.