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, 4 (7), a006742

The RNA Worlds in Context

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The RNA Worlds in Context

Thomas R Cech. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol.

Abstract

There are two RNA worlds. The first is the primordial RNA world, a hypothetical era when RNA served as both information and function, both genotype and phenotype. The second RNA world is that of today's biological systems, where RNA plays active roles in catalyzing biochemical reactions, in translating mRNA into proteins, in regulating gene expression, and in the constant battle between infectious agents trying to subvert host defense systems and host cells protecting themselves from infection. This second RNA world is not at all hypothetical, and although we do not have all the answers about how it works, we have the tools to continue our interrogation of this world and refine our understanding. The fun comes when we try to use our secure knowledge of the modern RNA world to infer what the primordial RNA world might have looked like.

Figures

Figure 1.
Figure 1.
An RNA world model for the successive appearance of RNA, proteins, and DNA during the evolution of life on Earth. Many isolated mixtures of complex organic molecules failed to achieve self-replication, and therefore died out (indicated by the arrows leading to extinction.) The pathway that led to self-replicating RNA has been preserved in its modern descendants. Multiple arrows to the left of self-replicating RNA cover the likely self-replicating systems that preceded RNA. Proteins large enough to self-fold and have useful activities came about only after RNA was available to catalyze peptide ligation or amino acid polymerization, although amino acids and short peptides were present in the mixtures at far left. DNA took over the role of genome more recently, although still >1 billion years ago. LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) already had a DNA genome and carried out biocatalysis using protein enzymes as well as RNP enzymes (such as the ribosome) and ribozymes.

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