It is now believed that in the origin of life, proteins should have been "invented" in an RNA world. However, due to the complexity of a possible RNA-based proto-translation system, this evolving process seems quite complicated and the associated scenario remains very blurry. Considering that RNA can bind amino acids with specificity, it has been reasonably supposed that initial peptides might have been synthesized on "RNA templates" containing multiple amino acid binding sites. This "Direct RNA Template (DRT)" mechanism is attractive because it should be the simplest mechanism for RNA to synthesize peptides, thus very likely to have been adopted initially in the RNA world. Then, how this mechanism could develop into a proto-translation system mechanism is an interesting problem.
Presentation of the hypothesis
Here an explanation to this problem is shown considering the principle of "replication parsimony" --- genetic information tends to be utilized in a parsimonious way under selection pressure, due to its replication cost (e.g., in the RNA world, nucleotides and ribozymes for RNA replication). Because a DRT would be quite long even for a short peptide, its replication cost would be great. Thus the diversity and the length of functional peptides synthesized by the DRT mechanism would be seriously limited. Adaptors (proto-tRNAs) would arise to allow a DRT's complementary strand (called "C-DRT" here) to direct the synthesis of the same peptide synthesized by the DRT itself. Because the C-DRT is a necessary part in the DRT's replication, fewer turns of the DRT's replication would be needed to synthesize definite copies of the functional peptide, thus saving the replication cost. Acting through adaptors, C-DRTs could transform into much shorter templates (called "proto-mRNAs" here) and substitute the role of DRTs, thus significantly saving the replication cost. A proto-rRNA corresponding to the small subunit rRNA would then emerge to aid the binding of proto-tRNAs and proto-mRNAs, allowing the reduction of base pairs between them (ultimately resulting in the triplet anticodon/codon pair), thus further saving the replication cost. In this context, the replication cost saved would allow the appearance of more and longer functional peptides and, finally, proteins. The hypothesis could be called "DRT-RP" ("RP" for "replication parsimony").
Testing the hypothesis
The scenario described here is open for experimental work at some key scenes, including the compact DRT mechanism, the development of adaptors from aa-aptamers, the synthesis of peptides by proto-tRNAs and proto-mRNAs without the participation of proto-rRNAs, etc. Interestingly, a recent computer simulation study has demonstrated the plausibility of one of the evolving processes driven by replication parsimony in the scenario.
Implication of the hypothesis
An RNA-based proto-translation system could arise gradually from the DRT mechanism according to the principle of "replication parsimony" --- to save the replication cost of RNA templates for functional peptides. A surprising side deduction along the logic of the hypothesis is that complex, biosynthetic amino acids might have entered the genetic code earlier than simple, prebiotic amino acids, which is opposite to the common sense. Overall, the present discussion clarifies the blurry scenario concerning the origin of translation with a major clue, which shows vividly how life could "manage" to exploit potential chemical resources in nature, eventually in an efficient way over evolution.
This article was reviewed by Eugene V. Koonin, Juergen Brosius, and Arcady Mushegian.