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1.  On the origin of the translation system and the genetic code in the RNA world by means of natural selection, exaptation, and subfunctionalization 
Biology Direct  2007;2:14.
The origin of the translation system is, arguably, the central and the hardest problem in the study of the origin of life, and one of the hardest in all evolutionary biology. The problem has a clear catch-22 aspect: high translation fidelity hardly can be achieved without a complex, highly evolved set of RNAs and proteins but an elaborate protein machinery could not evolve without an accurate translation system. The origin of the genetic code and whether it evolved on the basis of a stereochemical correspondence between amino acids and their cognate codons (or anticodons), through selectional optimization of the code vocabulary, as a "frozen accident" or via a combination of all these routes is another wide open problem despite extensive theoretical and experimental studies. Here we combine the results of comparative genomics of translation system components, data on interaction of amino acids with their cognate codons and anticodons, and data on catalytic activities of ribozymes to develop conceptual models for the origins of the translation system and the genetic code.
Our main guide in constructing the models is the Darwinian Continuity Principle whereby a scenario for the evolution of a complex system must consist of plausible elementary steps, each conferring a distinct advantage on the evolving ensemble of genetic elements. Evolution of the translation system is envisaged to occur in a compartmentalized ensemble of replicating, co-selected RNA segments, i.e., in a RNA World containing ribozymes with versatile activities. Since evolution has no foresight, the translation system could not evolve in the RNA World as the result of selection for protein synthesis and must have been a by-product of evolution drive by selection for another function, i.e., the translation system evolved via the exaptation route. It is proposed that the evolutionary process that eventually led to the emergence of translation started with the selection for ribozymes binding abiogenic amino acids that stimulated ribozyme-catalyzed reactions. The proposed scenario for the evolution of translation consists of the following steps: binding of amino acids to a ribozyme resulting in an enhancement of its catalytic activity; evolution of the amino-acid-stimulated ribozyme into a peptide ligase (predecessor of the large ribosomal subunit) yielding, initially, a unique peptide activating the original ribozyme and, possibly, other ribozymes in the ensemble; evolution of self-charging proto-tRNAs that were selected, initially, for accumulation of amino acids, and subsequently, for delivery of amino acids to the peptide ligase; joining of the peptide ligase with a distinct RNA molecule (predecessor of the small ribosomal subunit) carrying a built-in template for more efficient, complementary binding of charged proto-tRNAs; evolution of the ability of the peptide ligase to assemble peptides using exogenous RNAs as template for complementary binding of charged proteo-tRNAs, yielding peptides with the potential to activate different ribozymes; evolution of the translocation function of the protoribosome leading to the production of increasingly longer peptides (the first proteins), i.e., the origin of translation. The specifics of the recognition of amino acids by proto-tRNAs and the origin of the genetic code depend on whether or not there is a physical affinity between amino acids and their cognate codons or anticodons, a problem that remains unresolved.
We describe a stepwise model for the origin of the translation system in the ancient RNA world such that each step confers a distinct advantage onto an ensemble of co-evolving genetic elements. Under this scenario, the primary cause for the emergence of translation was the ability of amino acids and peptides to stimulate reactions catalyzed by ribozymes. Thus, the translation system might have evolved as the result of selection for ribozymes capable of, initially, efficient amino acid binding, and subsequently, synthesis of increasingly versatile peptides. Several aspects of this scenario are amenable to experimental testing.
This article was reviewed by Rob Knight, Doron Lancet, Alexander Mankin (nominated by Arcady Mushegian), and Arcady Mushegian.
PMCID: PMC1894784  PMID: 17540026
2.  Evolution of the Division of Labor between Genes and Enzymes in the RNA World 
PLoS Computational Biology  2014;10(12):e1003936.
The RNA world is a very likely interim stage of the evolution after the first replicators and before the advent of the genetic code and translated proteins. Ribozymes are known to be able to catalyze many reaction types, including cofactor-aided metabolic transformations. In a metabolically complex RNA world, early division of labor between genes and enzymes could have evolved, where the ribozymes would have been transcribed from the genes more often than the other way round, benefiting the encapsulating cells through this dosage effect. Here we show, by computer simulations of protocells harboring unlinked RNA replicators, that the origin of replicational asymmetry producing more ribozymes from a gene template than gene strands from a ribozyme template is feasible and robust. Enzymatic activities of the two modeled ribozymes are in trade-off with their replication rates, and the relative replication rates compared to those of complementary strands are evolvable traits of the ribozymes. The degree of trade-off is shown to have the strongest effect in favor of the division of labor. Although some asymmetry between gene and enzymatic strands could have evolved even in earlier, surface-bound systems, the shown mechanism in protocells seems inevitable and under strong positive selection. This could have preadapted the genetic system for transcription after the subsequent origin of chromosomes and DNA.
Author Summary
The RNA world refers to the stage of early evolution when RNA macromolecules were responsible both for storing hereditary information and performing enzymatic activities. Conflict arises between these two functions, however, as enzymatic activities of the ribozymes are in tradeoff with their replication rates. Here we address this problem by investigating the evolutionary emergence of a primordial transcription-like system in model protocells inhabited by unlinked replicators. Our numerical analysis demonstrates that division of labor between genes and enzymes could have emerged, given that there was a moderate to strong tradeoff between the enzymatic and template efficiency of one strand of the ribozymes. This division of labor results in a strong asymmetry in the numbers of the enzymatic and genetic strands of the macromolecules, in favor of the former. We offer insight into the emergence of the first transcription-like system, which is today characteristic of all known life forms.
PMCID: PMC4256009  PMID: 25474573
3.  One RNA plays three roles to provide catalytic activity to a group I intron lacking an endogenous internal guide sequence 
Nucleic Acids Research  2009;37(12):3981-3989.
Catalytic RNA molecules possess simultaneously a genotype and a phenotype. However, a single RNA genotype has the potential to adopt two or perhaps more distinct phenotypes as a result of differential folding and/or catalytic activity. Such multifunctionality would be particularly significant if the phenotypes were functionally inter-related in a common biochemical pathway. Here, this phenomenon is demonstrated by the ability of the Azoarcus group I ribozyme to function when its canonical internal guide sequence (GUG) has been removed from the 5′ end of the molecule, and added back exogenously in trans. The presence of GUG triplets in non-covalent fragments of the ribozyme allow trans-splicing to occur in both a reverse splicing assay and a covalent self-assembly assay in which the internal guide sequence (IGS)-less ribozyme can put itself together from two of its component pieces. Analysis of these reactions indicates that a single RNA fragment can perform up to three distinct roles in a reaction: behaving as a portion of a catalyst, behaving as a substrate, and providing an exogenous IGS. This property of RNA to be multifunctional in a single reaction pathway bolsters the probability that a system of self-replicating molecules could have existed in an RNA world during the origins of life on the Earth.
PMCID: PMC2709566  PMID: 19406926
4.  Inhibition of HIV-1 replication by ribozymes that show poor activity in vitro. 
Nucleic Acids Research  1993;21(22):5251-5255.
Self-cleaving RNAs (ribozymes) can be engineered to cleave target RNAs of choice in a sequence-specific manner (1). Consequently, they could be used to inhibit virus replication or to analyse host gene function in vivo. However, ribozymes that are catalytic in vitro are generally disappointing when analysed in cells unless expressed at high levels relative to their target RNAs (2, 3). Here we provide evidence that this can be overcome by optimizing ribozyme structure using cellular rather than cell-free assays. We show that ribozymes of relatively long flanking complementary regions (FCRs), while poor catalysts in vitro, can produce profound inhibition of HIV replication in cells. By examining a series of ribozymes in which the FCRs vary from 9 to 564 nucleotides, we establish that the optimum length for activity in the cell is > or = 33 nucleotides.
PMCID: PMC310644  PMID: 8255782
5.  Design, characterization and testing of tRNA3Lys-based hammerhead ribozymes. 
Nucleic Acids Research  1999;27(7):1698-1708.
A hammerhead ribozyme targeted against the HIV-1 env coding region was expressed as part of the anticodon loop of human tRNA3Lys without sacrificing tRNA stability or ribozyme catalytic activity. These tRNA-ribozymes were isolated from a library which was designed to contain linkers (sequences connecting the ribozyme to the anticodon loop) of random sequence and variable length. The ribozyme target site was provided in cis during selection and in trans during subsequent characterization. tRNA-ribozymes that possessed ideal combinations of linkers were expected to recognize the cis target site more freely and undergo cleavage. The cleaved molecules were isolated, cloned and characterized. Active tRNA-ribozymes were identified and the structural features conducive to cleavage were defined. The selected tRNA-ribozymes were stable, possessed cleavage rates lower or similar to the linear hammerhead ribozyme, and could be transcribed by an extract containing RNA polymerase III. Retroviral vectors expressing tRNA-ribozymes were tested in a human CD4+ T cell line and were shown to inhibit HIV-1 replication. These tRNA3Lys-based hammerhead ribozymes should therefore prove to be valuable for both basic and applied research. Special application is sought in HIV-1 or HIV-2 gene therapy.
PMCID: PMC148374  PMID: 10076002
6.  Kinetic and Binding Analysis of the Catalytic Involvement of Ribose Moieties of a trans-Acting δ Ribozyme* 
The Journal of biological chemistry  2002;277(29):26508-26516.
We have identified ribose 2′-hydroxyl groups (2′-OHs) that are critical for the activity of a trans-cleaving δ ribozyme derived from the antigenomic strand of the hepatitis δ virus. Initially, an RNA-DNA mixed ribozyme composed of 26 deoxyribo- (specifically the nucleotides forming the P2 stem and the P4 stem-loop) and 31 ribonucleotides (those forming the catalytic center) was engineered. This mixed ribozyme catalyzed the cleavage of a small substrate with kinetic parameters virtually identical to those of the all-RNA ribozyme. The further substitution of deoxyribose for ribose residues permitted us to investigate the contribution of all 2′-OHs to catalysis. Determination of the kinetic parameters for the cleavage reaction of the resulting ribozymes revealed (i) 10 2′-OH groups appear to be important in supporting the formation of several hydrogen bonds within the catalytic core, (ii) none of the important 2′-OHs seem to coordinate a magnesium cation, and (iii) 1 of the tested RNA-DNA mixed polymers appeared to stabilize the ribozyme-substrate transition-state complex, resulting in an improvement over the all-RNA counterpart. The contribution of the 2′-OHs to the catalytic mechanism is discussed, and differences with the crystal structure of a genomic δ self-cleaved product are explained. Clearly, the 2′-OHs are essential components of the network of interactions involved in the formation of the catalytic center of the δ ribozyme.
PMCID: PMC2902528  PMID: 12015324 CAMSID: cams1090
7.  Core-associated non-duplex sequences distinguishing the genomic and antigenomic self-cleaving RNAs of hepatitis delta virus. 
Nucleic Acids Research  1997;25(20):4085-4092.
The two ribozymes found in hepatitis delta virus RNA form related but non-identical secondary structures and display similar cleavage properties in vitro. Three of the non-duplex elements hypothesized to contribute nucleotides to the catalytic core vary slightly in length between the two ribozymes and the differences are conserved in clinical isolates. Possible functional relationships of the core sequence elements were tested by systematically exchanging sequences between the two ribozymes. It was found that switching two of the elements (L3 and J4/2) from one ribozyme to the other reduced cleavage activity in both. On the other hand, exchanging the third region (J1/4) resulted in enhanced activity for one ribozyme and a smaller increase in activity for the other. Combining exchanges did not reveal any compensatory interactions involving these particular elements nor did a pattern emerge that would suggest an optimal combination of core sequences for a generalized HDV ribozyme. Non-compensatory behavior reinforces the idea that the non-duplex sequences may form sequence-specific contacts with duplex portions of the ribozyme, but, in addition, these data suggest that there may be selective pressures on the ribozyme sequences in the virus that are not reflected in the in vitro self-cleavage assays.
PMCID: PMC147006  PMID: 9321662
8.  Investigating a New Generation of Ribozymes in Order to Target HCV 
PLoS ONE  2010;5(3):e9627.
For a long time nucleic acid-based approaches directed towards controlling the propagation of Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) have been considered to possess high potential. Towards this end, ribozymes (i.e. RNA enzymes) that specifically recognize and subsequently catalyze the cleavage of their RNA substrate present an attractive molecular tool. Here, the unique properties of a new generation of ribozymes are taken advantage of in order to develop an efficient and durable ribozyme-based technology with which to target HCV (+) RNA strands. These ribozymes resulted from the coupling of a specific on/off adaptor (SOFA) to the ribozyme domain derived from the Hepatitis Delta Virus (HDV). The former switches cleavage activity “on” solely in the presence of the desired RNA substrate, while the latter was the first catalytic RNA reported to function naturally in human cells, specifically in hepatocytes. In order to maximize the chances for success, a step-by-step approach was used for both the design and the selection of the ribozymes. This approach included the use of both bioinformatics and biochemical methods for the identification of the sites possessing the greatest potential for targeting, and the subsequent in vitro testing of the cleavage activities of the corresponding SOFA-HDV ribozymes. These efforts led to a significant improvement in the ribozymes' designs. The ability of the resulting SOFA-HDV ribozymes to inhibit HCV replication was further examined using a luciferase-based replicon. Although some of the ribozymes exhibited high levels of cleavage activity in vitro, none appears to be a potential long term inhibitor in cellulo. Analysis of recent discoveries in the cellular biology of HCV might explain this failure, as well as provide some ideas on the potential limits of using nucleic acid-based drugs to control the propagation of HCV. Finally, the above conclusions received support from experiments performed using a collection of SOFA-HDV ribozymes directed against HCV (−) strands.
PMCID: PMC2835756  PMID: 20224783
9.  Formation of the P1.1 pseudoknot is critical for both the cleavage activity and substrate specificity of an antigenomic trans-acting hepatitis delta ribozyme 
Nucleic Acids Research  2003;31(8):2087-2096.
Hepatitis delta virus RNAs possess self-cleavage activities that produce 2′,3′-cyclic phosphate and 5′-hydroxyl termini (i.e. cis-acting delta ribozyme). Trans-acting delta ribozymes have been engineered by removing a junction from the cis version, thereby producing one molecule possessing the substrate sequence and the other the catalytic domain. According to the pseudoknot model, the secondary structure of the delta ribozyme includes a pseudoknot (i.e. P1.1 stem) formed by two base pairs from residues of the L3 loop and J1/4 junction. A collection of 48 P1.1 stem mutants was synthesized in order to provide an original characterization of both the importance and the structure of this pseudoknot in a trans-acting version of the ribozyme. Several structural differences were noted compared to the results reported for cis-acting ribozymes. For example, a combination of two stable Watson–Crick base pairs composing the essential P1.1 stem was demonstrated to be crucial for a significant level of activity, while the cis version required only one base pair. In addition, we present the first physical evidences revealing that the composition of the P1.1 stem affects the substrate specificity for ribozyme cleavage. Depending on the residues forming the J1/4 junction, non-productive ribozyme–substrate complexes can be observed. This phenomenon is proposed to be important for further development of a gene-inactivation system based on delta ribozyme.
PMCID: PMC153735  PMID: 12682359
10.  Extensive Molecular Dynamics Simulations Show That Canonical G8 and Protonated A38H+ Forms Are Most Consistent with Crystal Structures of Hairpin Ribozyme 
The journal of physical chemistry. B  2010;114(19):6642-6652.
The hairpin ribozyme is a prominent member of the group of small catalytic RNAs (RNA enzymes or ribozymes) because it does not require metal ions to achieve catalysis. Biochemical and structural data have implicated guanine 8 (G8) and adenine 38 (A38) as catalytic participants in cleavage and ligation catalyzed by the hairpin ribozyme, yet their exact role in catalysis remains disputed. To gain insight into dynamics in the active site of a minimal self-cleaving hairpin ribozyme, we have performed extensive classical, explicit-solvent molecular dynamics (MD) simulations on timescales of 50-150 ns. Starting from the available X-ray crystal structures, we investigated the structural impact of the protonation states of G8 and A38, and the inactivating A−1(2′-methoxy) substitution employed in crystallography. Our simulations reveal that a canonical G8 agrees well with the crystal structures while a deprotonated G8 profoundly distorts the active site. Thus MD simulations do not support a straightforward participation of the deprotonated G8 in catalysis. By comparison, the G8 enol tautomer is structurally well tolerated, causing only local rearrangements in the active site. Furthermore, a protonated A38H+ is more consistent with the crystallography data than a canonical A38. The simulations thus support the notion that A38H+ is the dominant form in the crystals, grown at pH 6. In most simulations, the canonical A38 departs from the scissile phosphate and substantially perturbs the structures of active site and S-turn. Yet, we occasionally also observe formation of a stable A−1(2′-OH)…A38(N1) hydrogen bond, which documents the ability of the ribozyme to form this hydrogen bond, consistent with a potential role of A38 as general base catalyst. The presence of this hydrogen bond is, however, incompatible with the expected in-line attack angle necessary for self-cleavage, requiring a rapid transition of the deprotonated 2′-oxyanion to a position more favorable for in-line attack after proton transfer from A−1(2′-OH) to A38(N1). The simulations revealed a potential force field artifact, occasional but irreversible formation of ‘ladder-like’, underwound A-RNA structure in one of the external helices. Although it does not affect the catalytic center of the hairpin ribozyme, further studies are under way to better assess possible influence of such force field behavior on long RNA simulations.
PMCID: PMC2872159  PMID: 20420375
hairpin ribozyme; catalysis; molecular dynamics simulations
11.  Arginine Cofactors on the Polymerase Ribozyme 
PLoS ONE  2011;6(9):e25030.
The RNA world hypothesis states that the early evolution of life went through a stage in which RNA served both as genome and as catalyst. The central catalyst in an RNA world organism would have been a ribozyme that catalyzed RNA polymerization to facilitate self-replication. An RNA polymerase ribozyme was developed previously in the lab but it is not efficient enough for self-replication. The factor that limits its polymerization efficiency is its weak sequence-independent binding of the primer/template substrate. Here we tested whether RNA polymerization could be improved by a cationic arginine cofactor, to improve the interaction with the substrate. In an RNA world, amino acid-nucleic acid conjugates could have facilitated the emergence of the translation apparatus and the transition to an RNP world. We chose the amino acid arginine for our study because this is the amino acid most adept to interact with RNA. An arginine cofactor was positioned at ten different sites on the ribozyme, using conjugates of arginine with short DNA or RNA oligonucleotides. However, polymerization efficiency was not increased in any of the ten positions. In five of the ten positions the arginine reduced or modulated polymerization efficiency, which gives insight into the substrate-binding site on the ribozyme. These results suggest that the existing polymerase ribozyme is not well suited to using an arginine cofactor.
PMCID: PMC3176810  PMID: 21949841
12.  The glmS ribozyme: use of a small molecule coenzyme by a gene-regulatory RNA 
Quarterly reviews of biophysics  2010;43(4):423-447.
The glmS ribozyme is the first known example of a natural ribozyme that has evolved to require binding of an exogenous small molecule for activity. In Gram-positive bacteria, this RNA domain is part of the mRNA encoding the essential enzyme that synthesizes glucosamine-6-phosphate (GlcN6P). When present at physiologic concentration, this small molecule binds to the glmS ribozyme and uncovers a latent self-cleavage activity that ultimately leads to degradation of the mRNA. Biochemical and structural studies reveal that the RNA adopts a rigid fold stabilized by three pseudoknots and the packing of a peripheral domain against the ribozyme core. GlcN6P binding to this pre-organized RNA does not induce conformational changes; rather, the small molecule functions as a co-enzyme, providing a catalytically essential amine group to the active site. The ribozyme is not a passive player, however. Active site functional groups are essential for activity, even in the presence of GlcN6P. In addition to being a superb experimental system with which to analyze how RNA catalysts can exploit small molecule coenzymes to broaden their chemical versatility, the presence of the glmS ribozyme in numerous pathogenic bacteria make this RNA an attractive target for the development of new antibiotics and antibacterial strategies.
PMCID: PMC3409577  PMID: 20822574
13.  Core requirements for glmS ribozyme self-cleavage reveal a putative pseudoknot structure 
Nucleic Acids Research  2006;34(3):968-975.
The glmS ribozyme is a self-cleaving RNA catalyst that resides in the 5′-untranslated region of glmS mRNA in certain bacteria. The ribozyme is specifically activated by glucosamine-6-phosphate (GlcN6P), the metabolic product of the GlmS protein, and is thus proposed to provide a feedback mechanism of riboswitch regulation. Both phylogenetic and biochemical analyses of the glmS ribozyme have established a highly conserved core sequence and secondary structure required for GlcN6P-dependent self-cleavage. However, the high degree of nucleotide conservation offers few clues regarding the higher-order structural organization of the catalytic core. To further investigate core ribozyme structure, minimal ‘consensus-type’ glmS ribozymes that retain GlcN6P-dependent activity were produced. Mutational analyses of consensus-type glmS ribozymes support a model for core ribozyme folding through a pseudoknot structure formed by the interaction of two highly conserved sequence segments. Moreover, GlcN6P-dependent function is demonstrated for bimolecular constructs in which substrate interaction with the ribozyme is minimally comprised of sequence representing that involved in putative pseudoknot formation. These studies suggest that the glmS ribozyme adopts an intricate multi-strand catalytic core through the formation of a pseudoknot structure, and provide a refined model for further considering GlcN6P interaction and GlcN6P-dependent ribozyme function.
PMCID: PMC1361622  PMID: 16464827
14.  The catalytic mechanism of hairpin ribozyme studied by hydrostatic pressure 
Nucleic Acids Research  2005;33(8):2557-2564.
The discovery of ribozymes strengthened the RNA world hypothesis, which assumes that these precursors of modern life both stored information and acted as catalysts. For the first time among extensive studies on ribozymes, we have investigated the influence of hydrostatic pressure on the hairpin ribozyme catalytic activity. High pressures are of interest when studying life under extreme conditions and may help to understand the behavior of macromolecules at the origins of life. Kinetic studies of the hairpin ribozyme self-cleavage were performed under high hydrostatic pressure. The activation volume of the reaction (34 ± 5 ml/mol) calculated from these experiments is of the same order of magnitude as those of common protein enzymes, and reflects an important compaction of the RNA molecule during catalysis, associated to a water release. Kinetic studies were also carried out under osmotic pressure and confirmed this interpretation and the involvement of water movements (78 ± 4 water molecules per RNA molecule). Taken together, these results are consistent with structural studies indicating that loops A and B of the ribozyme come into close contact during the formation of the transition state. While validating baro-biochemistry as an efficient tool for investigating dynamics at work during RNA catalysis, these results provide a complementary view of ribozyme catalytic mechanisms.
PMCID: PMC1088306  PMID: 15870387
15.  Evaluating Group I Intron Catalytic Efficiency in Mammalian Cells 
Molecular and Cellular Biology  1999;19(10):6479-6487.
Recent reports have demonstrated that the group I ribozyme from Tetrahymena thermophila can perform trans-splicing reactions to repair mutant RNAs. For therapeutic use, such ribozymes must function efficiently when transcribed from genes delivered to human cells, yet it is unclear how group I splicing reactions are influenced by intracellular expression of the ribozyme. Here we evaluate the self-splicing efficiency of group I introns from transcripts expressed by RNA polymerase II in human cells to directly measure ribozyme catalysis in a therapeutically relevant setting. Intron-containing expression cassettes were transfected into a human cell line, and RNA transcripts were analyzed for intron removal. The percentage of transcripts that underwent self-splicing ranged from 0 to 50%, depending on the construct being tested. Thus, self-splicing activity is supported in the mammalian cellular environment. However, we find that the extent of self-splicing is greatly influenced by sequences flanking the intron and presumably reflects differences in the intron’s ability to fold into an active conformation inside the cell. In support of this hypothesis, we show that the ability of the intron to fold and self-splice from cellular transcripts in vitro correlates well with the catalytic efficiency observed from the same transcripts expressed inside cells. These results underscore the importance of evaluating the impact of sequence context on the activity of therapeutic group I ribozymes. The self-splicing system that we describe should facilitate these efforts as well as aid in efforts at enhancing in vivo ribozyme activity for various applications of RNA repair.
PMCID: PMC84618  PMID: 10490588
16.  Engineering a family of synthetic splicing ribozymes 
Nucleic Acids Research  2010;38(8):2748-2755.
Controlling RNA splicing opens up possibilities for the synthetic biologist. The Tetrahymena ribozyme is a model group I self-splicing ribozyme that has been shown to be useful in synthetic circuits. To create additional splicing ribozymes that can function in synthetic circuits, we generated synthetic ribozyme variants by rationally mutating the Tetrahymena ribozyme. We present an alignment visualization for the ribozyme termed as structure information diagram that is similar to a sequence logo but with alignment data mapped on to secondary structure information. Using the alignment data and known biochemical information about the Tetrahymena ribozyme, we designed synthetic ribozymes with different primary sequences without altering the secondary structure. One synthetic ribozyme with 110 nt mutated retained 12% splicing efficiency in vivo. The results indicate that our biochemical understanding of the ribozyme is accurate enough to engineer a family of active splicing ribozymes with similar secondary structure but different primary sequences.
PMCID: PMC2860135  PMID: 20299341
17.  Non-ribozyme sequences enhance self-cleavage of ribozymes derived from Hepatitis delta virus. 
Nucleic Acids Research  1991;19(3):559-564.
Analysis of the self-cleavage of ribozymes derived from the genomic RNA of Hepatitis delta virus (HDV) has revealed that certain co-transcribed vector sequences significantly affect the activity of the ribozyme. Specifically, the t1/2 of self-cleavage for a 135 nucleotide HDV RNA varied, at 42 degrees C, from 5 min to 88 min, depending on the vector-derived sequences flanking the 5' end of the ribozyme. Further analysis suggested that this phenomenon was most likely due to the interaction of vector-derived sequences with a 16 nucleotide region found at the 3' end of the ribozyme. These findings have implications for studies of ribozymes transcribed from cDNA templates, and may provide information regarding the catalytic structure of the HDV ribozyme.
PMCID: PMC333648  PMID: 2011528
18.  Circularity and self-cleavage as a strategy for the emergence of a chromosome in the RNA-based protocell 
Biology Direct  2013;8:21.
It is now popularly accepted that an “RNA world” existed in early evolution. During division of RNA-based protocells, random distribution of individual genes (simultaneously as ribozymes) between offspring might have resulted in gene loss, especially when the number of gene types increased. Therefore, the emergence of a chromosome carrying linked genes was critical for the prosperity of the RNA world. However, there were quite a few immediate difficulties for this event to occur. For example, a chromosome would be much longer than individual genes, and thus more likely to degrade and less likely to replicate completely; the copying of the chromosome might start at middle sites and be only partial; and, without a complex transcription mechanism, the synthesis of distinct ribozymes would become problematic.
Inspired by features of viroids, which have been suggested as “living fossils” of the RNA world, we supposed that these difficulties could have been overcome if the chromosome adopted a circular form and small, self-cleaving ribozymes (e.g. the hammer head ribozymes) resided at the sites between genes. Computer simulation using a Monte-Carlo method was conducted to investigate this hypothesis. The simulation shows that an RNA chromosome can spread (increase in quantity and be sustained) in the system if it is a circular one and its linear “transcripts” are readily broken at the sites between genes; the chromosome works as genetic material and ribozymes “coded” by it serve as functional molecules; and both circularity and self-cleavage are important for the spread of the chromosome.
In the RNA world, circularity and self-cleavage may have been adopted as a strategy to overcome the immediate difficulties for the emergence of a chromosome (with linked genes). The strategy suggested here is very simple and likely to have been used in this early stage of evolution. By demonstrating the possibility of the emergence of an RNA chromosome, this study opens on the prospect of a prosperous RNA world, populated by RNA-based protocells with a number of genes, showing complicated functions.
This article was reviewed by Sergei Kazakov (nominated by Laura Landweber), Nobuto Takeuchi (nominated by Anthony Poole), and Eugene Koonin.
PMCID: PMC3765326  PMID: 23971788
19.  The cosmological model of eternal inflation and the transition from chance to biological evolution in the history of life 
Biology Direct  2007;2:15.
Recent developments in cosmology radically change the conception of the universe as well as the very notions of "probable" and "possible". The model of eternal inflation implies that all macroscopic histories permitted by laws of physics are repeated an infinite number of times in the infinite multiverse. In contrast to the traditional cosmological models of a single, finite universe, this worldview provides for the origin of an infinite number of complex systems by chance, even as the probability of complexity emerging in any given region of the multiverse is extremely low. This change in perspective has profound implications for the history of any phenomenon, and life on earth cannot be an exception.
Origin of life is a chicken and egg problem: for biological evolution that is governed, primarily, by natural selection, to take off, efficient systems for replication and translation are required, but even barebones cores of these systems appear to be products of extensive selection. The currently favored (partial) solution is an RNA world without proteins in which replication is catalyzed by ribozymes and which serves as the cradle for the translation system. However, the RNA world faces its own hard problems as ribozyme-catalyzed RNA replication remains a hypothesis and the selective pressures behind the origin of translation remain mysterious. Eternal inflation offers a viable alternative that is untenable in a finite universe, i.e., that a coupled system of translation and replication emerged by chance, and became the breakthrough stage from which biological evolution, centered around Darwinian selection, took off. A corollary of this hypothesis is that an RNA world, as a diverse population of replicating RNA molecules, might have never existed. In this model, the stage for Darwinian selection is set by anthropic selection of complex systems that rarely but inevitably emerge by chance in the infinite universe (multiverse).
The plausibility of different models for the origin of life on earth directly depends on the adopted cosmological scenario. In an infinite universe (multiverse), emergence of highly complex systems by chance is inevitable. Therefore, under this cosmology, an entity as complex as a coupled translation-replication system should be considered a viable breakthrough stage for the onset of biological evolution.
This article was reviewed by Eric Bapteste, David Krakauer, Sergei Maslov, and Itai Yanai.
PMCID: PMC1892545  PMID: 17540027
20.  Inhibition of hepatitis C virus by an M1GS ribozyme derived from the catalytic RNA subunit of Escherichia coli RNase P 
Virology Journal  2014;11:86.
Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a human pathogen causing chronic liver disease in about 200 million people worldwide. However, HCV resistance to interferon treatment is one of the important clinical implications, suggesting the necessity to seek new therapies. It has already been shown that some forms of the catalytic RNA moiety from E. coli RNase P, M1 RNA, can be introduced into the cytoplasm of mammalian cells for the purpose of carrying out targeted cleavage of mRNA molecules. Our study is to use an engineering M1 RNA (i.e. M1GS) for inhibiting HCV replication and demonstrates the utility of this ribozyme for antiviral applications.
By analyzing the sequence and structure of the 5′ untranslated region of HCV RNA, a putative cleavage site (C67-G68) was selected for ribozyme designing. Based on the flanking sequence of this site, a targeting M1GS ribozyme (M1GS-HCV/C67) was constructed by linking a custom guide sequence (GS) to the 3′ termini of catalytic RNA subunit (M1 RNA) of RNase P from Escherichia coli through an 88 nt-long bridge sequence. In vitro cleavage assays confirmed that the engineered M1GS ribozyme cleaved the targeted RNA specifically. Moreover, ~85% reduction in the expression levels of HCV proteins and >1000-fold reduction in viral growth were observed in supernatant of cultured cells that transfected the functional ribozyme. In contrast, the HCV core expression and viral growth were not significantly affected by a “disabled” ribozyme (i.e. M1GS-HCV/C67*). Moreover, cholesterol-conjugated M1GS ribozyme (i.e. Chol-M1GS-HCV/C67) showed almost the same bioactivities with M1GS-HCV/C67, demonstrating the potential to improve in vivo pharmacokinetic properties of M1GS-based RNA therapeutics.
Our results provide direct evidence that the M1GS ribozyme can function as an antiviral agent and effectively inhibit gene expression and multiplication of HCV.
PMCID: PMC4038377  PMID: 24885776
Ribozyme; RNase P; Hepatitis C virus; 5′ UTR; Antiviral
21.  Involvement of Proteasome α-Subunit PSMA7 in Hepatitis C Virus Internal Ribosome Entry Site-Mediated Translation 
Molecular and Cellular Biology  2001;21(24):8357-8364.
Ribozymes are small catalytic RNA molecules that can be engineered to enzymatically cleave RNA transcripts in a sequence-specific fashion and thereby inhibit expression and function of the corresponding gene product. With their simple structures and site-specific cleavage activity, they have been exploited as potential therapeutic agents in a variety of human disorders, including hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection. We have designed a hairpin ribozyme (Rz3′X) targeting the HCV minus-strand replication intermediate at position 40 within the 3′X tail. Surprisingly, Rz3′X was found to induce ganciclovir (GCV)-resistant colonies in a bicistronic cellular reporter system with HCV internal ribosome entry site (IRES)-dependent translation of herpes simplex virus thymidine kinase (TK). Rz3′X-transduced GCV-resistant HeLa reporter cells showed substantially reduced IRES-mediated HCV core protein translation compared with control vector-transduced cells. Since these reporter systems do not contain the HCV 3′X tail sequences, the results indicate that Rz3′X probably exerted an inhibitory effect on HCV IRES activity fortuitously through another gene target. A novel technique of ribozyme cleavage-based target gene identification (cleavage-specific amplification of cDNA ends) (M. Krüger, C. Beger, P. J. Welch, J. R. Barber, and F. Wong-Staal, Nucleic Acids Res. 29:e94, 2001) revealed that human 20S proteasome α-subunit PSMA7 mRNA was a target RNA recognized and cleaved by Rz3′X. We then showed that additional ribozymes directed against PSMA7 RNA inhibited HCV IRES activity in two assay systems: GCV resistance in the HeLa IRES TK reporter cell system and a transient transfection assay performed with a bicistronic Renilla-HCV IRES-firefly luciferase reporter in Huh7 cells. In contrast, ribozymes were inactive against IRES of encephalomyocarditis virus and human rhinovirus. Additionally, proteasome inhibitor MG132 exerted a dose-dependent inhibitory effect on HCV IRES-mediated translation but not on cap-dependent translation. These data suggest a principal role for PSMA7 in regulating HCV IRES activity, a function essential for HCV replication.
PMCID: PMC100000  PMID: 11713272
22.  Metal Ions: Supporting Actors in the Playbook of Small Ribozymes 
Metal Ions in Life Sciences  2011;9:175-196.
Since the 1980s, several small RNA motifs capable of chemical catalysis have been discovered. These small ribozymes, composed of between approximately 40 and 200 nucleotides, have been found to play vital roles in the replication of subviral and viral pathogens, gene regulation in prokaryotes, and have recently been discovered in noncoding eukaryotic RNAs. All of the known natural small ribozymes – the hairpin, hammerhead, hepatitis delta virus, Varkud satellite, and glmS ribozymes – catalyze the same self-cleavage reaction as RNAse A, resulting in two products, one bearing a 2′–3′ cyclic phosphate and the other a 5′-hydroxyl group. Although originally thought to be obligate metalloenzymes like the group I and II self-splicing introns, the small ribozymes are now known to support catalysis in a wide variety of cations that appear to be only indirectly involved in catalysis. Nevertheless, under physiologic conditions, metal ions are essential for the proper folding and function of the small ribozymes, the most effective of these being magnesium. Metal ions contribute to catalysis in the small ribozymes primarily by stabilizing the catalytically active conformation, but in some cases also by activating RNA functional groups for catalysis, directly participating in catalytic acid-base chemistry, and perhaps by neutralizing the developing negative charge of the transition state. Although interactions between the small ribozymes and cations are relatively nonspecific, ribozyme activity is quite sensitive to the types and concentrations of metal ions present in solution, suggesting a close evolutionary relationship between cellular metal ion homeostasis and cation requirements of catalytic RNAs, and perhaps RNA in general.
PMCID: PMC3365584  PMID: 22010272
hairpin ribozyme; hammerhead ribozyme; hepatitis delta virus ribozyme; Varkud satellite ribozyme; glmS ribozyme; general acid-base catalysis; electrostatic screening
23.  A pseudoknot ribozyme structure is active in vivo and required for hepatitis delta virus RNA replication. 
Journal of Virology  1996;70(4):2403-2410.
The ribozymes of hepatitis delta virus (HDV) have so far been studied primarily in vitro. Several structural models for HDV ribozymes based on truncated HDV RNA fragments, which are different from the hammerhead or the hairpin/paperclip ribozyme model proposed for plant viroid or virusoid RNAs, have been proposed. Whether these structures actually exist in vivo and whether ribozymes actually function in the HDV replication cycle have not been demonstrated. We have now developed an in vivo ribozyme self-cleavage assay capable of detecting self-cleavage of dimer or trimer HDV RNA in vivo. By site-directed mutagenesis and compensatory mutations to disrupt and restore potential base pairing in the ribozyme domain of the full-length HDV RNA according to the various structural models, a close correlation between the detected in vivo and the predicted in vitro ribozyme activities of various mutant RNAs was demonstrated. These results suggest that the proposed in vitro ribozyme structure likely exists and functions during the HDV replication cycle in vivo. Furthermore, the pseudoknot model most likely represents the structure responsible for the ribozyme activity in vivo. All of the mutants that had lost the ribozyme activity could not replicate, indicating that the ribozyme activities are indeed required for HDV RNA replication. However, some of the compensatory mutants which have restored both the cleavage and ligation activities could not replicate, suggesting that the ribozyme domains are also involved in other unidentified functions or in the formation of an alternative structure that is required for HDV RNA replication. This study thus established that the ribozyme has important biological functions in the HDV life cycle.
PMCID: PMC190083  PMID: 8642668
24.  Intracellular RNA cleavage by the hairpin ribozyme. 
Nucleic Acids Research  1998;26(15):3494-3504.
Studies involving ribozyme-directed inactivation of targeted RNA molecules have met with mixed success, making clear the importance of methods to measure and optimize ribozyme activity within cells. The interpretation of biochemical assays for determining ribozyme activity in the cellular environment have been complicated by recent results indicating that hammerhead and hairpin ribozymes can cleave RNA following cellular lysis. Here, we report the results of experiments in which the catalytic activity of hairpin ribozymes is monitored following expression in mammalian cells, and in which post-lysis cleavage is rigorously excluded through a series of biochemical and genetic controls. Following transient transfection, self-processing transcripts containing active and inactive hairpin ribozymes together with cleavable and non-cleavable substrates were generated within the cytoplasm of mouse OST7-1 cells using T7 RNA polymerase. Unprocessed RNA and products ofintracellular cleavage were detected and analyzed using a primer-extension assay. Ribozyme-containing transcripts accumulated to a level of 4 x 10(4) copies per cell, and self-processing proceeded to an extent of >75% within cells. Cellular RNA processing was blocked by mutations within the ribozyme (G8A, G21U) or substrate (DeltaA-1) that, in vitro , eliminate cleavage without affecting substrate binding. In addition to self-processing activity, trans -cleavage reactions were supported by the ribozyme-containing product of the self-processing reaction, and by the ribozyme linked to the non-cleavable substrate analog. Ribozyme activity was present in extracts of cells expressing constructs with active ribozyme domains. These results provide direct biochemical evidence for the catalytic activity of the hairpin ribozyme in a cellular environment, and indicate that self-processing ribozyme transcripts may be well suited for cellular RNA-inactivation experiments.
PMCID: PMC147743  PMID: 9671810
25.  Use of a coenzyme by the glmS ribozyme-riboswitch suggests primordial expansion of RNA chemistry by small molecules 
The glmS ribozyme-riboswitch is the first known example of a naturally occurring catalytic RNA that employs a small molecule as a coenzyme. Binding of glucosamine-6-phosphate (GlcN6P) activates self-cleavage of the bacterial ribozyme, which is part of the mRNA encoding the metabolic enzyme GlcN6P-synthetase. Cleavage leads to negative feedback regulation. GlcN6P binds in the active site of the ribozyme, where its amine could function as a general acid and electrostatic catalyst. The ribozyme is pre-folded but inactive in the absence of GlcN6P, demonstrating it has evolved strict dependence on the exogenous small molecule. The ribozyme showcases the ability of RNA to co-opt non-covalently bound small molecules to expand its chemical repertoire. Analogue studies demonstrate that some molecules other than GlcN6P, such as l-serine (but not d-serine), can function as weak activators. This suggests how coenzyme use by RNA world ribozymes may have led to evolution of proteins. Primordial cofactor-dependent ribozymes may have evolved to bind their cofactors covalently. If amino acids were used as cofactors, this could have driven the evolution of RNA aminoacylation. The ability to make covalently bound peptide coenzymes may have further increased the fitness of such primordial ribozymes, providing a selective pressure for the invention of translation.
PMCID: PMC3158913  PMID: 21930586
catalytic RNA; enzymatic cofactor; RNA world

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