Evolution of Evolvable Systems (EVOEVO)

After the successful application for an ERC advanced grant the project implementation phase started in July 2012 and will run till June 2017.

This project has three pillars, linked to one another by thought pattern transfer from different scientific traditions, including major transitions, formal chemistry and replicator dynamics. In the first pillar, critically strengthened by the participation of the Co-PI Andrew Griffiths (Strasbourg) we will use a unique multi-disciplinary approach, combining physics, chemistry and biology, and using droplets in microfluidic systems as analogues or protocells, to theoretically and experimentally investigate the emergence of RNA replicators, their cooperation in protocells and the origin of chromosomes. This includes simulation of the emergence of larger genomes and the computational analysis of coevolution of the latter with membrane properties, and a transition from an RNA-based metabolism to one based on catalysis by proteins.
In the second pillar we investigate the origin of the adaptive immune system. The defining characteristic of adaptive immunity is the ability to shape the targeting of immune reactions during the lifespan of the individual, which occurs by an evolutionary process based on the random generation and selection of immune receptor specificities. The evolution of adaptive immunity can thus be regarded as the “evolution of evolvability” within a population of immune systems, and it also constitutes a major transition in the way in which information is transmitted between cell generations. The transition involved the emergence of a new level of selection (competition of lymphocyte clones) and a shift from limited to unlimited heredity in the immune repertoire. We aim to throw new light on how and why this happened.
In the third pillar we propose that replicators exist in the brain, and that such replicators underwent a transition from limited to unlimited heredity in a manner analogous to the transition from attractor-based (metabolic) to template-based (genetic) inheritance in the origin of life. Once such a replicator-based dynamic is in place, principles from evolutionary biology and population genetics can be applied to neuroscience. We shall focus on possible evolutionary dynamics within the brain rather than on the genetic preconditions that make this possible, in order to better understand some key cognitive faculties like model-based reinforcement learning, insight and language.


Principal Investigator:
Eörs Szathmáry
Director of the Parmenides Center for the Conceptual Foundations of Science
Academia Europaea and Hungarian Academy of Sciences member
guest professor @ LMU Munich

Co-Principal Investigator:
Andrew Griffiths
Prof. Premier Class
École supérieure de physique et de chimie industrielles de la ville de Paris, France

For research personnel see here.

For project poster see here.

Research Partner

The Laboratory of BioChemistry (LBC) was created in September 2012 at the Ecole Supérieure de Physique Chimie Industrielles de la Ville de Paris, and is directed by Prof. Andrew Griffiths. We are also part of CBI, UMR 8231 ESPCI-CNRS. The research activities of LBC are based around droplet-based microfluidics, a powerful new ultrahigh-throughput system in which reaction volumes can be minaturized by up to a million-fold compared to conventional assays in microtitre plates. This opens up exciting prospects for the development of extremely innovative systems with many applications in the Life Sciences. The team is highly multidisciplinary to both create and improve microfluidic set-ups and develop a wide range of bioassays on molecules, cells, bacteria, virus-like particles. Our main research topics are related to high throughput screening and evolutionary biology.

Contact: contact@espci.fr

EVOEVO Publications



  • IFP Energies Nouvelles, Paris, France, 12 November 2013

  • Novartis, Basel, Switzerland, 6 November 2013

  • IGBMC, Strasbourg, 5 July 2013

  • X-Biotech, Mines ParisTech, 27 May 2013

  • Kymab, Babraham, UK, 9 April 2013

  • Sanofi, Alfortville, France, 6 February 2013

  • BioMérieux, Lyon, France, 19 November 2012

  • GSK, Stevenage, UK, 25 October 2012

  • BioRad, Paris, France, 26 September 2012