Understanding the emergence of life from (primitive) abiotic components has arguably been one of the deepest and yet one of the most elusive scientific questions. Notwithstanding the lack of a clear definition for a living system, it is widely argued that heredity (involving self-reproduction) along with compartmentalization and metabolism are key features that contrast living systems from their non-living counterparts. A minimal living system may be viewed as “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. It has been proposed that autocatalytic sets of chemical reactions (ACSs) could serve as a mechanism to establish chemical compositional identity, heritable self-reproduction, and evolution in a minimal chemical system. Following years of theoretical work, autocatalytic chemical systems have been constructed experimentally using a wide variety of substrates, and most studies, thus far, have focused on the demonstration of chemical self-reproduction under specific conditions. While several recent experimental studies have raised the possibility of carrying out some aspects of experimental evolution using autocatalytic reaction networks, there remain many open challenges. In this review, we start by evaluating theoretical studies of ACSs specifically with a view to establish the conditions required for such chemical systems to exhibit self-reproduction and Darwinian evolution. Then, we follow with an extensive overview of experimental ACS systems and use the theoretically established conditions to critically evaluate these empirical systems for their potential to exhibit Darwinian evolution. We identify various technical and conceptual challenges limiting experimental progress and, finally, conclude with some remarks about open questions.
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