Subsumed complexity: Abiogenesis as a by-product of complex energy transduction

Z. R. Adam, D. Zubarev, M. Aono, H. James Cleaves

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


The origins of life bring into stark relief the inadequacy of our current synthesis of thermodynamic, chemical, physical and information theory to predict the conditions under which complex, living states of organic matter can arise. Origins research has traditionally proceeded under an array of implicit or explicit guiding principles in lieu of a universal formalism for abiogenesis. Within the framework of a new guiding principle for prebiotic chemistry called subsumed complexity, organic compounds are viewed as by-products of energy transduction phenomena at different scales (subatomic, atomic, molecular and polymeric) that retain energy in the form of bonds that inhibit energy from reaching the ground state. There is evidence for an emergent level of complexity that is overlooked in most conceptualizations of abiogenesis that arises from populations of compounds formed from atomic energy input. We posit that different forms of energy input can exhibit different degrees of dissipation complexity within an identical chemical medium. By extension, the maximum capacity for organic chemical complexification across molecular and macromolecular scales subsumes, rather than emerges from, the underlying complexity of energy transduction processes that drive their production and modification. This article is part of the themed issue 'Re-conceptualizing the origins of life'.

Original languageEnglish
Article number20160348
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2109
Publication statusPublished - 2017 Dec 28


  • Chemical evolution
  • Emergence
  • Entropy
  • Hydrothermal vent
  • Origins of life

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Mathematics(all)
  • Engineering(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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