(sorry if the title seems like flame-bait - but it's a real question). I'm trying to understand what could have come before the first cell (What are the "minimum requirements" for a single cell?)

From what I've seen, the presented chemical evolution (aka abiogenesis) process centers around self-replicating RNA that gets trapped inside a lipid-based protocell and then somehow turns into a functioning cell. But it seems like a giant leap to go from that situation to the most basic cell we know about.

Instead of starting from basic molecule and trying to get more complex, what if we take a simple cell (which is actually really complicated) and try to get more simple - try to take out some of the pieces. Work our way backwards. The problem is, I don't know what pieces you can take out. It seems there are several molecular systems that need to be functioning for cell to be viable. Once you start to imagine a cell without them, it seems the cell will not be able to survive or replicate.

My question is, what would the step just before a "minimum cell" look like? Are there pieces we can take away and it would still be able to survive and replicate?

** Edit **

Based on some of the discussions in the comments, I wanted to clarify what I'm asking. This is a bit long - but hopefully it will help.

Evolution is a process in which replicating systems transfer beneficial permutations to 'offspring'. Usually the term is applied to "biological evolution) (meaning something living - from a cell to more complex organism) but I've also heard people refer to "chemical evolution" which is the process in which atoms combine to make molecules and amino acids and the amino acids combine to make RNA which can replicate. Or fatty molecules combine to make a lipid membrane, etc.

In this process to get to something more complex, you have to have gone through a simpler stage. To arrive at RNA, you had to have a system that would first produce nucleic acids. If the first life was in the oceans, you needed something that could survive in and out of water before you now have creatures on dry land. Each stage has to have a predecessor.

Generally question of the origin of life start at the raw materials and work their way towards the more complicated. Most of the discussion I've seen basically end with RNA in lipid cells + billions of years = a prokaryote. The difference between RNA in a protocell and a working basic cell is vast and I haven't seen an explanation on how to bridge that gap.

I'm approaching the question from the opposite direction. If we take the most basic, simple prokaryote cell - what came before it? Even such a simple cell is in actually very very complicated (semi-permeable membrane, nucleoid, ribosomes, cytoplasm, etc..) There are so many interconnected pieces that it seems are only valuable when working as a whole. Eg, could I have had a cell without ribosomes and then some how it mutated to have ribosomes? It seem not, because a cell without ribosomes would never have survived/replicated. The same with other components.. if I have some precursors without that piece, it would never have survived long enough to mutate to now have that component.

So my question is what could the predecessor to a basic cell have been, considering its complexity and the seeming interdependence on the pieces for the cells survival?

I hope that helps explain the question better - thanks for any insight you can provide!

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – Chris
    Commented Jul 20, 2016 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ ribosomes are made of RNA, Ribozymes are strands of RNA that act like enzymes ribosomes among them. So you have a smoother transition from RNA that catalyzes itself to RNA that catalyzes other strands of RNA, to RNA that translates other RNA into proteins. The human classification systems get in the way of your imagination, at the chemical level there is very little difference between many "essential" molecules many are in fact the same just arranged in slightly different ways. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ This is not a question in terms of SE Biology, but an attempt to start a discussion. This explains the latest rant it has provoked (Nov 2019). Surprised? Just vote to close. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ This question has too many false assumptions to be clear. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 16:37
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    $\begingroup$ the source list for this video will provide a plethora of papers about modeling the origin of life. youtube.com/watch?v=KvGdllx9pJU also the simplest cell lack many of the things you mentioned, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27013737 try these out so you can ask a better question. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Oct 9, 2023 at 1:43

4 Answers 4


There is no straightforward answer as to whether a "single cell" is irreducibly complex. Which cell are we talking about? Human mitochondria do not survive without their genome, but those of Cryptosporidium do persist without it. The Minimal Genome Project, led by biotechnologist Craig Venter, concluded with the creation of Mycoplasma laboratorium, the result of removing non-essential genes from Mycoplasma genitalium. This minimum cell had 382 genes.

Are 382 genes the minimum number of genes required for life then? No. That number refers to the total number of genes necessary for a particular organism, which happened to be Mycoplasma. Iterative trials of removing genes will reveal different numbers of essential genes for different organisms. Primates will require a high number of essential genes, whilst archaea could survive with fewer genes.

Regarding the transition from RNA-only to RNA-protein world, peptides function as cofactors for some ribozymes. Amino acids and peptides are known to have existed in the prebiotic environment and have been found in space (glycine has been found in comets, along with other 70 amino acids).

Regarding the formation of nucleotides, from Scientific American.

A New Route In the presence of phosphate, the raw materials for nucleobases and ribose first form 2-aminooxazole, a molecule that contains part of a sugar and part of a C or U nucleobase. Further reactions yield a full ribose-base block and then a full nucleotide. The reactions also produce “wrong” combinations of the original molecules, but after exposure to ultraviolet rays, only the “right” versions—the nucleotides—survive.

This answer is not complete, I will add more information and provide citations in the future.


"try to take out some of the pieces. Work our way backwards."

Backwards in what, time? Does what you're doing work for any other natural system? No, it doesn't. That is not how scientists infer the history of any process given snapshots, transitional forms, etc. To discover history, they apply validated physical models and processes to the snapshots, they don't remove arbitrary parts.

"The problem is, I don't know what pieces you can take out."

No, the problem is the method you're using is invalid. I'm pretty sure it was a religious fundamentalist that seeded your idea in the first place. You're using a complexity/function-based "reverse-evolution" which may seem reasonable but never worked anywhere else, in any other part of science, for any natural process. How would you apply your method successfully to stellar evolution?

Both complexity and function are not measured, they are assessed subjectively and depend on the size of the system of interest and surrounding environment. They are philosophical concepts and are not good guides or a valid basis for inferring the history of a natural process. They are useful for communication between biologists or as a guide for planning experiments, but have no simple quantifiable relationship to any natural system.

Complexity is superficially related but entirely irrelevant to existence of a particular form of life or anything else. What's relevant, says the laws of physics, is prior conditions, surrounding environment and natural laws that act on those conditions.

To say whether something is functional one must know the environment it exists in. Even if you identify a function relevant to life, it still has other functions. Everything is made of atoms which function as the building blocks for both life and non-life, therefore there is no such thing as objective or fundamental function.

Irreducible complexity (IC) isn't even a coherent philosophical concept let alone a scientifically valid concept. It's a philosophical thought-experiment with no empirical, scientific or observational justification. Basically, IC does the following:

1) Breaks something into parts[1], philosophically, inside the mind.

2) Remove one of those parts [2].

3) Assert with no supporting evidence that the incomplete thing in step #2:

a) actually existed at some time in the past, and

b) was part of some chain of modifications or changes that led to the complete thing in step #1.

4) Assert without evidence that since the incomplete object had no obvious purpose or function [3], then it couldn't have been a step in evolution because evolution requires all parts to be functional[4].

One key blunder and reason why IC fails is step (3). In order for IC to be valid and relevant to this universe, or anything in it including evolution, step 3 must be supported by empirical evidence.

One can't just randomly choose some arbitrary division an object, however relevant to biology it may seem, then choose a random part, remove that part and claim the incomplete object once existed in the real universe. One must demonstrate with evidence that it really existed.

Another key blunder is step #4 that is just plain wrong, evolution allows for non-functional and even functions that hurt survival.

Part 3b is actually another straw-man or misrepresentation of evolution because evolution does not say that the incomplete object in step #2 ever existed or must have existed.

It is a false assumption to think that any combination of parts an object is made of, minus one part, must have existed or been an actual step in the formation process. That doesn't even hold true for designed things.

For example, take a house. Remove its roof. (By the way a house without a roof still functions as a barrier suitable for keeping non-flying and bad-at-climbing things outside the house.) It is a false assumption to say that the house without a roof must have existed at sometime in the past. It might happen that the typical order for building a house is bottom to top; foundation, walls, roof. But that is not the necessary order. You could easily build the house from left to right using scaffolding, instead of bottom to top. This is how additions or extensions of completed homes are done.

Another false assumption of IC is that removal of one part of something completely destroys ALL functions relevant to survival. See footnote [4] for more details.

[1] Breaking something into parts is completely subjective because there are always multiple ways to do that, and multiple sub-parts in each part down to sub-atomic particles. Even if you somehow had something with indivisible parts, there are still many ways to do that.

[2] The part removed is chosen carefully by the creationist to achieve the conclusion of the argument they want. It is not based on any empirical observation or scientific evidence. There is no evidence that the removed part was once not part of the whole object at sometime in history.

[3] Purpose and function is again subjective and depends on the person assessing the thing in question. If the person sees no obvious purpose or function, that does not mean there is none.

[4] This is false. Evolution does not require all parts being functional. There can be non-functional parts and even parts that hurt survival. What matters is the TOTAL survival ability of the individual, species, or greater group as a whole, not just the function of one part.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology.SE! This is an impressive rant, but an ideal answer will contain supporting references. ——— You may also want to take the tour and then go through the help pages starting with How to Answer questions effectively on this site and edit your post accordingly. Thanks! 😊 $\endgroup$
    – tyersome
    Commented Nov 23, 2019 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ I see you didn't even take the time to read my answer, or you would not be classifying it as a "rant". As I explained, the OP's question is due to a philosophical misunderstanding, not any real empirical, scientific, substantial facts. The entire enterprise of philosophically breaking into parts, removing a part, and pretending that object existed is bogus. I responded to philosophy with philosophy. The experts on this site should have immediately identified it as such. How do you expect me to give supporting references for basic logical errors? $\endgroup$
    – user6552
    Commented Nov 24, 2019 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, I was just trying to address the topic in the most philosophically complete and detailed manner. I will add that irreducible complexity exists for one singular purpose: to stifle, retard, and even halt scientific progress that has been utterly devastating to religion in the last 400 years. IC was designed solely for that purpose by fundamentalist lawyers and philosophers at the ultra-conservative christian think-tank, the discovery institute. Micheal Behe is their pawn. $\endgroup$
    – user6552
    Commented Nov 25, 2019 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ I think you comprehensive answer suffers due to the numerous problems in the question. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Commented Nov 26, 2019 at 16:24
  • $\begingroup$ @user6552 - thanks for the strawman argument! I pointed out at the beginning of my question that I was using a loaded, flame-baity title. Maybe a bad idea - I thought this was a place that rational adults could look past it and focus on the content of the question. You basically took the "bait", unfortunately, - and built an entire argument refuting my question by trying to refute "irreducible complexity". Maybe you should look at this article ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2926753 and let me know how it's different from what they are trying to solve. $\endgroup$
    – Yehosef
    Commented Nov 27, 2019 at 4:09

Eg, could I have had a cell without ribosomes and then some how it mutated to have ribosomes? It seem not, because a cell without ribosomes would never have survived/replicated.

The premise in the chain of reasoning that "we could hypothetically remove parts until we reach the bare minimum, but we can't so the cell came to be in its entirety is flawed". As populations evolve the organisms can gain and lose components. As an analogy consider the question of how humans can develop mouths. Our diet consists of chewing food which gives us energy to build structures like teeth and jaws, but we need teeth and jaws to chew food. A similar paradox. But of course we develop in the womb with an umbilical cord that we used to draw nutrients from our mothers that bypasses the mouth. This structure is not present in us after birth so we can't tell from looking at an adult human.

My question is, what would the step just before a "minimum cell" look like? Are there pieces we can take away and it would still be able to survive and replicate?

A very interesting question I think, but I also don't think it can be answered by looking at a modern cell and removing parts. The ancestor to cells may have lived through a very different system for example utilizing RNA to both catalyze essential reactions and store replication information as opposed to using proteins and DNA to do the same thing.


“Irreducible complexity” is, as you seem to realise, a weasel term used to imply that a thing (like a cell) cannot have arisen from something simpler (or at least “different”). In that sense the answer to the question in the title is a clear “no”, unless we accept supernatural explanations for the origin of life.

You go on to state that the heart of your question is “what could the predecessor to a basic cell have been, given its complexity...”. I can strongly recommend the classic text of A.I. Oparin, “Origin of Life”, published in an English translation in 1938(!).

This remarkable book contains a general exposition of the notion that living cells were preceded by “a gradual evolution of carbon and nitrogen compounds”, to quote the blurb of my personal copy.

The book is all the more remarkable in that its insights preceded the modern understanding of the nature of RNA and DNA - the type of “inheritance” with which the book is primarily concerned is not one of nucleic acid replication, but the relative abundance of specific chemical reactions - specifically, the so-called coacervates (spelt "coazervates" in the referenced book) and other manifestations of colloidal chemistry.


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