Autopoiesis and Self-organization | Origin of Life: Emergence, Self-organization and Evolution |

The concept of autopoiesis was first introduced in 1972 by Maturana and Varela to describe one of the main feature of biological system as “a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network” [1]. Within this framework, autopoiesis relies on the concepts of operational closure and self-maintenance.

Conversely, an allopoietic system does not achieve self-maintenance though it may display operational closure. For example, a car factory is a defined unity in space which transform raw materials in organized structures (i.e. cars) within its own boundaries. However the resulting object is something other than the factory itself and does not contribute directly to the self-maintenance of the factory from within.

Since its introduction autopoiesis became a central concept in the origin of life research and for large number of researcher it embodies the fundamental feature that a chemical system shall have to be defined alive.

Autopoiesis has been repeatedly coupled to the notion of self-organization that can be defined as “a process in which pattern at the global level of a system emerges solely from numerous interactions among the lower-level components of the system. Moreover, the rules specifying interactions among the system's components are executed using only local information, without reference to the global pattern” [2].

However, it is commonly accepted that autopoietic systems are "structurally coupled" with their medium and that they change dynamically as the surrounding environment changes.

Within this framework, are self-organization and radical autonomy still compatible with the notion of autopiesis and structural coupling?

by Davide De Lucrezia



1. Maturana and Varela. Autopoiesis and Cognition. 1980

2. Camazine, Deneubourg, Franks, Sneyd, Theraulaz and Bonabeau. Self-Organization in Biological Systems. Princeton University Press, 2003.


Further readings

Cornish-Bowden A, Cárdenas ML. Self-organization at the origin of life. J Theor Biol. 2008.

Pulselli RM, Simoncini E, Tiezzi E. Self-organization in dissipative structures. Biosystems. 2009

Boiteau L, Pascal R. Energy sources, self-organization, and the origin of life. Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2011

Etxeberria A. Autopoiesis and natural drift and evolution revisited. Artif Life. 2004

Luisi PL. Autopoiesis: a review and a reappraisal. Naturwissenschaften. 2003.

Scott B. Organizational closure and conceptual coherence. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2000.

Bertschinger N, Olbrich E, Ay N, Jost J. Autonomy: an information theoretic perspective. Biosystems. 2008.

Ruiz-Mirazo K, Moreno A. Basic autonomy as a fundamental step in the synthesis of life. Artif Life. 2004.

Damiano L, Luisi PL. Towards an autopoietic redefinition of life. Orig Life Evol Biosph. 2010