How life can emerge from inanimate matter is one of the grand questions in science. Self-replicating molecules are necessary for the transition from chemistry to biology, but they need to acquire additional functions for life to emerge. Catalysis is one of the most essential of such functionalities, but mechanisms through which self-replicators can acquire catalytic and, in extension, metabolic properties have remained elusive. Here we show how catalytic activity and promiscuity in a self-replicator emerges through co-option: features that are selected to benefit replication inadvertently result in an arrangement of chemical functionalities that is conducive to catalysis. Specifically, we report self-assembly driven self-replicators that promote both a model retro-aldol reaction and the cleavage of fluorenylmethoxycarbonyl groups, with the latter transformation exerting a positive feedback on replication (protometabolism). Such chance invention of new function at the molecular level marks a pivotal step toward the de novo synthesis of life. [Figure not available: see fulltext.].