Early evolution: prokaryotes, the new kids on the block

Bioessays. 1999 Oct;21(10):880-9. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1521-1878(199910)21:10<880::AID-BIES11>3.0.CO;2-P.


Prokaryotes are generally assumed to be the oldest existing form of life on earth. This assumption, however, makes it difficult to understand certain aspects of the transition from earlier stages in the origin of life to more complex ones, and it does not account for many apparently ancient features in the eukaryotes. From a model of the RNA world, based on relic RNA species in modern organisms, one can infer that there was an absolute requirement for a high-accuracy RNA replicase even before proteins evolved. In addition, we argue here that the ribosome (together with the RNAs involved in its assembly) is so large that it must have had a prior function before protein synthesis. A model that connects and equates these two requirements (high-accuracy RNA replicase and prior function of the ribosome) can explain many steps in the origin of life while accounting for the observation that eukaryotes have retained more vestiges of the RNA world. The later derivation of prokaryote RNA metabolism and genome structure can be accounted for by the two complementary mechanisms of r-selection and thermoreduction.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Biological Evolution*
  • DNA / genetics
  • DNA / metabolism
  • Models, Biological
  • Origin of Life
  • Prokaryotic Cells*
  • RNA / genetics
  • RNA / metabolism
  • Ribosomes / metabolism


  • RNA
  • DNA