A key aspect of biological evolution is the capacity of living systems to process information, coded in deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), and used to direct how the cell works. The overall picture that emerges today from fields such as developmental, synthetic, and systems biology indicates that information processing in cells occurs through a hierarchy of genes regulating the activity of other genes through complex metabolic networks. There is an implicit semiotic character in this way of dealing with information, based on functional molecules that act as signs to achieve self-regulation of the whole network. In contrast to cells, chemical systems are not thought of being able to process information, yet they must have preceded biological organisms, and evolved into them. Hence, there must have been prebiotic molecular assemblies that could somehow process information, in order to regulate their own constituent reactions and supramolecular organization processes. The purpose of this essay is then to reflect about the distinctive features of information in living and non-living matter, and on how the capacity of biological organisms for information processing was possibly rooted in a particular type of chemical systems (here referred to as autonomous chemical systems), which could self-sustain and reproduce through organizational closure of their molecular building blocks.
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