The emergence of functional cooperation between the three main classes of biomolecules – nucleic acids, peptides and lipids – defines life at the molecular level. However, how such mutually interdependent molecular systems emerged from prebiotic chemistry remains a mystery. A key hypothesis, formulated by Crick, Orgel and Woese over 40 year ago, posits that early life must have been simpler. Specifically, it proposed that an early primordial biology lacked proteins and DNA but instead relied on RNA as the key biopolymer responsible not just for genetic information storage and propagation, but also for catalysis, i.e. metabolism. Indeed, there is compelling evidence for such an ‘RNA world’, notably in the structure of the ribosome as a likely molecular fossil from that time. Nevertheless, one might justifiably ask whether RNA alone would be up to the task. From a purely chemical perspective, RNA is a molecule of rather uniform composition with all four bases comprising organic heterocycles of similar size and comparable polarity and pK
a values. Thus, RNA molecules cover a much narrower range of steric, electronic and physicochemical properties than, e.g. the 20 amino acid side-chains of proteins. Herein we will examine the functional potential of RNA (and other nucleic acids) with respect to self-replication, catalysis and assembly into simple protocellular entities.