Molecules that replicate in trans are vulnerable to evolutionary extinction because they decrease the catalysis of replication to become more available as a template for replication. This problem can be alleviated with higher-level selection that clusters molecules of the same phenotype, favouring those groups that contain more catalysis. Here, we study a simple replicator model with implicit higher-level selection through space. We ask whether the functionality of such system can be enhanced when molecules reproduce through complementary replication, representing RNA-like replicators. For high diffusion, symmetry breaking between complementary strands occurs: one strand becomes a specialised catalyst and the other a specialised template. In ensemble, such replicators can modulate their catalytic activity depending on their environment, thereby mitigating the conflict between levels of selection. In addition, these replicators are more evolvable, facilitating survival in extreme conditions (i.e., for higher diffusion rates). Our model highlights that evolution with implicit higher-level selection—i.e., as a result of local interactions and spatial patterning—is very flexible. For different diffusion rates, different solutions to the selective conflict arise. Our results support an RNA World by showing that complementary replicators may have various ways to evolve more complexity.
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