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1.  The RNA world hypothesis: the worst theory of the early evolution of life (except for all the others)a 
Biology Direct  2012;7:23.
The problems associated with the RNA world hypothesis are well known. In the following I discuss some of these difficulties, some of the alternative hypotheses that have been proposed, and some of the problems with these alternative models. From a biosynthetic – as well as, arguably, evolutionary – perspective, DNA is a modified RNA, and so the chicken-and-egg dilemma of “which came first?” boils down to a choice between RNA and protein. This is not just a question of cause and effect, but also one of statistical likelihood, as the chance of two such different types of macromolecule arising simultaneously would appear unlikely. The RNA world hypothesis is an example of a ‘top down’ (or should it be ‘present back’?) approach to early evolution: how can we simplify modern biological systems to give a plausible evolutionary pathway that preserves continuity of function? The discovery that RNA possesses catalytic ability provides a potential solution: a single macromolecule could have originally carried out both replication and catalysis. RNA – which constitutes the genome of RNA viruses, and catalyzes peptide synthesis on the ribosome – could have been both the chicken and the egg! However, the following objections have been raised to the RNA world hypothesis: (i) RNA is too complex a molecule to have arisen prebiotically; (ii) RNA is inherently unstable; (iii) catalysis is a relatively rare property of long RNA sequences only; and (iv) the catalytic repertoire of RNA is too limited. I will offer some possible responses to these objections in the light of work by our and other labs. Finally, I will critically discuss an alternative theory to the RNA world hypothesis known as ‘proteins first’, which holds that proteins either preceded RNA in evolution, or – at the very least – that proteins and RNA coevolved. I will argue that, while theoretically possible, such a hypothesis is probably unprovable, and that the RNA world hypothesis, although far from perfect or complete, is the best we currently have to help understand the backstory to contemporary biology.
Reviewers
This article was reviewed by Eugene Koonin, Anthony Poole and Michael Yarus (nominated by Laura Landweber).
doi:10.1186/1745-6150-7-23
PMCID: PMC3495036  PMID: 22793875
RNA world hypothesis; Proteins first; Acidic pH; tRNA introns; Small ribozymes
2.  Primordial soup or vinaigrette: did the RNA world evolve at acidic pH? 
Biology Direct  2012;7:4.
Background
The RNA world concept has wide, though certainly not unanimous, support within the origin-of-life scientific community. One view is that life may have emerged as early as the Hadean Eon 4.3-3.8 billion years ago with an atmosphere of high CO2 producing an acidic ocean of the order of pH 3.5-6. Compatible with this scenario is the intriguing proposal that life arose within alkaline (pH 9-11) deep-sea hydrothermal vents like those of the 'Lost City', with the interface with the acidic ocean creating a proton gradient sufficient to drive the first metabolism. However, RNA is most stable at pH 4-5 and is unstable at alkaline pH, raising the possibility that RNA may have first arisen in the acidic ocean itself (possibly near an acidic hydrothermal vent), acidic volcanic lake or comet pond. As the Hadean Eon progressed, the ocean pH is inferred to have gradually risen to near neutral as atmospheric CO2 levels decreased.
Presentation of the hypothesis
We propose that RNA is well suited for a world evolving at acidic pH. This is supported by the enhanced stability at acidic pH of not only the RNA phosphodiester bond but also of the aminoacyl-(t)RNA and peptide bonds. Examples of in vitro-selected ribozymes with activities at acid pH have recently been documented. The subsequent transition to a DNA genome could have been partly driven by the gradual rise in ocean pH, since DNA has greater stability than RNA at alkaline pH, but not at acidic pH.
Testing the hypothesis
We have proposed mechanisms for two key RNA world activities that are compatible with an acidic milieu: (i) non-enzymatic RNA replication of a hemi-protonated cytosine-rich oligonucleotide, and (ii) specific aminoacylation of tRNA/hairpins through triple helix interactions between the helical aminoacyl stem and a single-stranded aminoacylating ribozyme.
Implications of the hypothesis
Our hypothesis casts doubt on the hypothesis that RNA evolved in the vicinity of alkaline hydrothermal vents. The ability of RNA to form protonated base pairs and triples at acidic pH suggests that standard base pairing may not have been a dominant requirement of the early RNA world.
Reviewers
This article was reviewed by Eugene Koonin, Anthony Poole and Charles Carter (nominated by David Ardell).
doi:10.1186/1745-6150-7-4
PMCID: PMC3372908  PMID: 22264281
RNA world; evolution; acidic pH; protonated base pairs; RNA triple helix; tRNA
3.  The transition from noncoded to coded protein synthesis: did coding mRNAs arise from stability-enhancing binding partners to tRNA? 
Biology Direct  2010;5:16.
Background
Understanding the origin of protein synthesis has been notoriously difficult. We have taken as a starting premise Wolf and Koonin's view that "evolution of the translation system is envisaged to occur in a compartmentalized ensemble of replicating, co-selected RNA segments, i.e., in an RNA world containing ribozymes with versatile activities".
Presentation of the hypothesis
We propose that coded protein synthesis arose from a noncoded process in an RNA world as a natural consequence of the accumulation of a range of early tRNAs and their serendipitous RNA binding partners. We propose that, initially, RNA molecules with 3' CCA termini that could be aminoacylated by ribozymes, together with an ancestral peptidyl transferase ribozyme, produced small peptides with random or repetitive sequences. Our concept is that the first tRNA arose in this context from the ligation of two RNA hairpins and could be similarly aminoacylated at its 3' end to become a substrate for peptidyl transfer catalyzed by the ancestral ribozyme. Within this RNA world we hypothesize that proto-mRNAs appeared first simply as serendipitous binding partners, forming complementary base pair interactions with the anticodon loops of tRNA pairs. Initially this may have enhanced stability of the paired tRNA molecules so they were held together in close proximity, better positioning the 3' CCA termini for peptidyl transfer and enhancing the rate of peptide synthesis. If there were a selective advantage for the ensemble through the peptide products synthesized, it would provide a natural pathway for the evolution of a coding system with the expansion of a cohort of different tRNAs and their binding partners. The whole process could have occurred quite unremarkably for such a profound acquisition.
Testing the hypothesis
It should be possible to test the different parts of our model using the isolated contemporary 50S ribosomal subunit initially, and then with RNAs transcribed in vitro together with a minimal set of ribosomal proteins that are required today to support protein synthesis.
Implications of the hypothesis
This model proposes that genetic coding arose de novo from complementary base pair interactions between tRNAs and single-stranded RNAs present in the immediate environment.
Reviewers
This article was reviewed by Eugene Koonin, Rob Knight and Berthold Kastner (nominated by Laura Landweber).
doi:10.1186/1745-6150-5-16
PMCID: PMC2859854  PMID: 20377916
4.  Evidence from glycine transfer RNA of a frozen accident at the dawn of the genetic code 
Biology Direct  2008;3:53.
Background
Transfer RNA (tRNA) is the means by which the cell translates DNA sequence into protein according to the rules of the genetic code. A credible proposition is that tRNA was formed from the duplication of an RNA hairpin half the length of the contemporary tRNA molecule, with the point at which the hairpins were joined marked by the canonical intron insertion position found today within tRNA genes. If these hairpins possessed a 3'-CCA terminus with different combinations of stem nucleotides (the ancestral operational RNA code), specific aminoacylation and perhaps participation in some form of noncoded protein synthesis might have occurred. However, the identity of the first tRNA and the initial steps in the origin of the genetic code remain elusive.
Results
Here we show evidence that glycine tRNA was the first tRNA, as revealed by a vestigial imprint in the anticodon loop sequences of contemporary descendents. This provides a plausible mechanism for the missing first step in the origin of the genetic code. In 448 of 466 glycine tRNA gene sequences from bacteria, archaea and eukaryote cytoplasm analyzed, CCA occurs immediately upstream of the canonical intron insertion position, suggesting the first anticodon (NCC for glycine) has been captured from the 3'-terminal CCA of one of the interacting hairpins as a result of an ancestral ligation.
Conclusion
That this imprint (including the second and third nucleotides of the glycine tRNA anticodon) has been retained through billions of years of evolution suggests Crick's 'frozen accident' hypothesis has validity for at least this very first step at the dawn of the genetic code.
Reviewers
This article was reviewed by Dr Eugene V. Koonin, Dr Rob Knight and Dr David H Ardell.
doi:10.1186/1745-6150-3-53
PMCID: PMC2630981  PMID: 19091122

Results 1-4 (4)